(Mainichi: February 18, 2016 – p. 3)
U.S. President Barack Obama stressed efforts to contain China at a Feb. 16 press conference held after his summit talks with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But the pace of China’s advance in the South China Sea is accelerating, as it is placing more islands under its effective control. This leaves the U.S. few effective tools to curb China’s aggression while avoiding confrontation with the country.
Since 2013, China has been increasing its footprint in the South China Sea through reclamation projects and construction of facilities there. The U.S. Department of Defense issued a warning in its report issued in May and the U.S. forces dispatched a warship to the waters within 12 nautical miles from China’s artificial island in the South China Sea in October as part of “freedom of navigation” operations.
The Obama administration in principle takes a stance of dealing with China carefully without causing conflict, as it needs China’s cooperation to address Pyongyang’s nuclear program and other global concerns. Under these circumstances, the U.S. turned to the ASEAN to maintain “order” in the South China Sea and hosted its first summit meeting with the leaders of the regional group.
The Sunnylands Declaration, a joint statement issued at the U.S.-ASEAN summit, calls for upholding the rights to maritime use based on international law, including “freedom of navigation.” It also refers to avoiding militarization. This suggests that the ASEAN leaders embrace the U.S. claims.
But the document includes no mention of “China.” When the statement was released, no ASEAN leaders were present at the venue. They may have avoided sitting side by side with Obama to avert the risk of drawing ire from China, with which they have close economic ties.
“The U.S. will take all necessary actions to protect the national security of its own and allies,” said former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman in Tokyo on Feb. 17 during her interview with the Mainichi Shimbun. But the fact is that China is establishing one fait accompli after another by taking advantage of Washington’s circumstances. (Abridged)