China’s foreign ministry summoned the U.S. Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Robert Wang, to make “serious representations” about remarks by the US State Department raising concerns over tensions in the disputed South China Sea. The statement by the State Department had been published on Friday, and was authored by Patrick Ventrell at the office of press relations.
While urging all parties to take steps to lower tensions in keeping with the spirit of the 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea and the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, the press release does, in its criticism of recent developments, emphasize China’s upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha City and establishment of a new military garrison there “in particular”. The statement doesn’t include remarks about the passage of a Vietnamese law earlier this summer, declaring sovereignty over areas of the Spratly and Paracel Islands and to come into effect at the beginning of next year, or the initiation of Vietnamese patrol flights in June this year, for example.
We do not take a position on competing territorial claims over land features and have no territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, says the State Department’s press release of Friday, however, [...]
It’s a pretty elaborate However.
More to the point, the statement does also urge all parties to clarify and pursue their territorial and maritime claims in accordance with international law, including the Law of the Sea Convention.
With the statement, the U.S. positions itself on Vietnam’s side – hence Beijing’s representations -, but stops short of committing itself to practical or military measures that would support Vietnam.
It would help if all claimants were prepared to accept a verdict from the International Tribunal For the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) – and Xinhua happily points out that not only China is cherry-picking when it comes to international law. If the case was brought to the court by all parties involved, however, and if all parties were prepared to accept the court’s verdict, the judges could hardly refuse to accept the case.
And the mention of international law by the State Department is crucial: after all, Beijing wants to negotiate with every single claimant, one by one. It wants to control the process not only bilaterally, but in effect unilaterally.
Is it wise for the U.S. to position itself as clearly as the Ventrell statement does? That’s no easy question – and the answer would need to include hints to an American ability not to “disappoint” Hanoi, as this would probably damage the limited and informal alliance with Vietnam.
But anyone who demands or welcomes steps towards democratization in international relations should – logically – welcome both China’s and Russia’s role at the UN when it comes to Syria, and America’s role in the South China Sea.