(Nikkei: February 18, 2016 – p. 2)
China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea is adding to tensions in the region. There are indications that China is trying to turn the artificial islands into military bases. To put a stop to the militarization of islands what is needed is tangible action, not only words, from the U.S.
The leaders of the U.S. and the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations met for the first time in California. The gathering was aimed at demonstrating their solidarity against China and was organized at the initiative of U.S. President Barack Obama.
A joint statement they adopted calls for upholding the principle of “freedom of navigation and overflight” and resolving conflicts in a peaceful manner. The message is clear: China should be held in check.
It is of great significance that the leaders of the U.S. and the ASEAN countries gathered to discuss issues such as South China Sea tensions. But there seems to be a limit to what the U.S. and ASEAN can do together. Absent from the joint statement were words that should have been included.
First, the joint statement makes no mention of China. Words such as “South China Sea,” “artificial islands” and “reclamation” were not included either. This is probably because some ASEAN countries had lobbied others to make the document as ambiguous as possible out of fear of a reaction from China. While the Philippines and Vietnam have territorial rows with China, Cambodia and Laos receive a great deal of economic aid from their giant neighbor. The joint statement’s language reflects the differences in their positions.
To unite ASEAN, the U.S. needs to demonstrate its commitment not to allow China to change the status quo through action. It should accelerate efforts to conduct joint military exercises with ASEAN members, as well as step up monitoring activities in the South China Sea. These efforts are increasing, but remain insufficient.
It is reported that China has deployed surface-to-air missiles in the Paracel Islands chain in the South China Sea. The impression that the Obama administration verbally criticizes China but takes no action to prevent its moves may give momentum to Chinese assertiveness.