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US Looks to Singapore, Indonesia to Help Calm Tensions in S. China Sea

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gestures as she speaks with Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa during a joint news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jakarta, September 3, 2012.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Asia where she is discussing efforts by U.S. allies Indonesia and Singapore to help calm tensions over rival territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Following talks with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, Secretary of State Clinton said the United States, like all countries, has a national interest in maintaining peace and stability, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea.

"We believe the nations of the region should work collaboratively together to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats, and certainly without the use of force," said Clinton.

China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and the Philippines have competing territorial claims to parts of the South China Sea. The United States is working to encourage agreement on a code of conduct to establish clear procedures for resolving those disputes.

Indonesia has played a key role in making progress toward that goal, especially when regional foreign ministers failed to reach agreement in July. So too has Singapore, which is more actively mediating South China Sea disputes as part of growing ties with the United States.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a Southeast Asia analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

"Singapore, I think, is walking farther away from the role it has historically played, which is really close to the U.S., but it sort of publicly did not talk about it and still tried to be a balancer," said Kurlantzick. "I think we are moving with them closer to a more traditional alliance."

Analyst Justin Logan of the Washington-based Cato Institute agrees that Singapore is moving closer to the United States, but says this might not be a traditional alliance.

"The United States likes to have very, very enthusiastic allies," said Logan. "And I think that the Singaporeans tend to have a more reserved, more calculated, careful approach. So it is certainly true that relations between the United States and Singapore have gotten better. They are getting more attention in Washington. But I do not think that you are going to have this extraordinarily tight, sometimes ebullient-style relationship that the United States has enjoyed in the past."

Logan says Singapore understands its position in the various South China Sea claims.

"Everybody wants to sit down and talk with the Singaporeans," said Logan. "And they realize that everybody wants to be friendly with the Singaporeans. Given their strategic positioning in this, they have played, I think, a very adept diplomatic game in trying to be friendly with everyone because everyone wants to be friendly with them."

It is a balance shared by neighboring Indonesia, where Foreign Minister Natalegawa last month hosted his Chinese counterpart and is quick to make clear that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, is not trying to pressure China.

"It is important to underscore ASEAN unity is not meant to be at the expense of any other party," said Natalegawa. "It is not about us rallying around to counter or to put any other country on the spot or to put them in a corner."

Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea will be part of Secretary Clinton's talks in Beijing and Brunei as well as at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Russia.