Bloomberg | Jul 22, 2010
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined Asia’s biggest security forum in Hanoi today as the U.S. strengthened defense ties across a region where China’s expanding military reach has triggered unease. Clinton yesterday discussed military cooperation with Vietnam and Defense Secretary Robert Gates restored ties with Indonesia’s Special Forces after a 12-year gap. A day earlier, the two officials affirmed U.S. support for South Korea in Seoul ahead of joint naval drills that China criticized. Clinton is set to meet China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Hanoi, where both are attending the 27-member Asean Regional Forum. China considers the entire South China Sea as its own, dismissing rival claims, and is building a blue-water fleet to project power beyond its own borders. “China’s assertiveness has caused anxieties in the region,” Carlyle A. Thayer, professor of politics at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, said by phone. Countries around Asia “are quite happy the U.S. is doing the heavy lifting,” he said. China cut off high-level military exchanges with the U.S. in January over arms sales to Taiwan and has declined to join the Obama administration in blaming North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 sailors. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said two days ago that the inability to speak directly with Chinese military leaders was a cause for concern.
Curiosity to Concern
“I’ve moved from being curious about what they’re doing to being concerned about what they’re doing,” Mullen told U.S. troops in South Korea. “I see a fairly significant investment in high-end equipment, satellites, ships, anti-ship missiles and high-end aircraft.” China’s military poses no threat to any nation, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said June 10. The U.S. regards Indonesia and Vietnam as increasingly important allies in the region, the Pentagon said in a February report. Gates met in Jakarta with his counterpart Purnomo Yusgiantoro and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The U.S. will begin a “measured and gradual” relationship with the elite unit known as Kopassus, which is already involved in United Nations peacekeeping operations, Gates said yesterday. Indonesia’s Defense Ministry has pledged to remove from active duty any military officials “credibly accused” of rights abuses, he said. The move was criticized by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which said it “weakens U.S. standards for military cooperation globally.” U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, also said he was “disappointed” by Gates’s announcement.
South China Sea
Indonesia and Vietnam border the South China Sea, which contains sea corridors vital to world trade, and where U.S. officials say China has become more assertive. The Paracel and Spratly islands, groups of rocky outcrops with unproven oil and gas deposits that are claimed in part or in full by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia, have been at the center of tensions. Estimates of oil and gas reserves vary, with some Chinese studies suggesting the waters contain more oil than Iran and more natural gas than Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. China told some international oil and gas companies to halt exploration in offshore areas that Vietnam considers part of its territory, a U.S. official told Congress last year. The South China Sea, stretching from Singapore to the Strait of Taiwan, is an “area of growing concern,” Gates said in Singapore last month. Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP Plc. are among companies that have halted projects in the sea because of China’s objections, according to U.S. government agencies.
Gates and Clinton stressed that relationships with Vietnam and Indonesia were improving. The decision to restore links with Indonesian forces was possible due to Indonesia’s progress in professionalizing the military since the fall of the dictator Suharto, Gates said. Vietnam is on the verge of becoming a “great nation” and the U.S. wants to take its relationship to a “new level,” Clinton told reporters in Hanoi. She met Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Pham Gia Khiem, who said yesterday they discussed defense links and were “leaving the past behind.” In contrast, Clinton said her presence with Gates in Seoul and the new sanctions they announced sought to send a clear deterrent to North Korea after the warship sinking that an international panel blamed on a torpedo from one of the North’s mini-submarines. The USS George Washington and three destroyers called into South Korean ports the same day in a show of U.S. commitment to the region. The ships arrived ahead of planned military maneuvers off South Korea’s east that start July 25.
China has beefed up its military over the past decade, enhancing the capability to deter U.S. ships and enforce territorial claims off its shores. Last year, Chinese fishing boats harassed two U.S. naval vessels in the South China Sea, where American forces have patrolled since World War II. China doesn’t see U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, as “normal,” General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, said in Singapore last month. “It is the transparency with respect to China that is probably most vexing because it’s difficult to figure out where they are headed,” Mullen said July 21. Asean ministers invited the U.S. and Russia to join the East Asia Summit, which includes the 10-member bloc, China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand. That would provide another forum where Chinese and American leaders meet face to face. “The U.S. is very important to the whole Asia-Pacific,” Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya told reporters in Hanoi. “Their presence here with the Seventh, fleet guarantees peace and security and the safety of sea lanes.”