As the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting gets underway this week in Manila, Philippines, U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated his call for China to stop its increasingly provocative and assertive activities in the South China Sea. The two-day APEC economic summit is bringing together 19 regional leaders to discuss issues ranging from trade to climate change though the South China Sea dispute is of great importance to many given the current tension. Despite the recent actions by the U.S. in the region including the sailing of a warship close to China’s possessions, Obama’s public comments on the matter will be limited as Beijing has repeatedly made it known that this forum is not the proper venue for such discussions. Regardless, as Obama’s comments Wednesday showed, the South China Sea is very much a topic of conversation behind closed doors.
President Obama’s comments
Early on Wednesday, Obama met with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III who is hosting the APEC summit. A variety of topics concerning the South China Sea dispute were discussed including China’s provocations, its artificial island building and the construction of military facilities on them. In speaking with reporters afterward at the Sofitel Hotel in Pasay City, Obama said “We agree on the need for bold steps to lower tensions, including pledging to halt further reclamation, new construction, and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea.”
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Unfortunately those hoping that Obama would continue his talk of the South China Sea dispute were disappointed as the summit proceeded. Before an audience of business leaders, Obama almost entirely focused his comments on the issue of climate change. Obama has made the issue of climate change an important aspect of his presidency and with the upcoming global climate change conference in Paris at the end of November, he said “If we want to prevent the worst effects of climate change before it’s too late, the time to act is now.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping followed Obama at the meeting of business leaders and similarly avoided the South China Sea issue. The focus of his talk was to highlight China’s growing economic role in the Pacific region as it becomes a counterweight to the U.S. Additionally he promoted China’s “One Belt, One Road” economic integration initiative and the recently created China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The AIIB is opposed by Washington which fears it will be used by Beijing to dominate Asia’s economy while pushing out the World Bank and Asian Development bank.
Though a major topic of discussion at this conference, Xi avoided mentioning the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement by name though did allude to it. He mentioned “various new regional free trade arrangements popping up” and “worries about the potential of fragmentation in this regard.” Earlier in the day Obama commented on the TPP saying “The fact that everyone here has stepped up and made some hard decisions that are going to pay off for decades to come I think is testimony to the vision that was reflected.”
China’s reactions to Obama’s comments on the South China Sea
While Xi was mostly silent on Obama’s comments, Beijing was not. China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said “If there is something that should stop, it is the United States should stop playing up the South China Sea issue, stop heightening tensions in the South China Sea.” He added “No country has the right to point fingers at [China’s construction activities].”
It should be said a day prior on Tuesday, Chinese vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin said China has repeatedly show restraint in the South China Sea. “The Chinese government has the right and the ability to recover the islands and reefs illegally occupied by neighboring countries,” Liu said adding “But we haven’t done this. We have maintained great restraint with the aim to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Military pledge to the Philippines
On Tuesday, Obama toured the Philippine naval frigate BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a former U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutter that was handed to the Philippines in May 2011. Following the tour, Obama announced that the U.S. would hand over two more ships to the Philippine Navy and provide $250 million over the next two years in maritime security assistance to countries in Southeast Asia.
Obama said in his announcement, “More capable navies, in partnership with the United States, are critical to the security of this region.” He added, “We have a treaty obligation, an iron-clad commitment to the defense of our ally the Philippines” and “My visit here underscored our shared commitment to the security of the waters of this region and to freedom of navigation.”
Obama was cautious though to avoid naming China or its role in impeding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The Philippine Navy will receive another Hamilton-class cutter, the USCGC Boutwell which is due to be retired and the research vessel R/V Melville. This year the Philippines will receive $79 million in U.S. maritime assistance, the most of any country in the region.
The maritime dispute with China is of great importance to the Philippines which is concerned over China’s growing military presence in the region such as on Mischief and Subi Reefs as well its growing domination of fishing grounds. The Philippines is not the only country concerned by China’s activities. Vietnam which is a party to the same dispute is also highly concerned and increasingly, countries who are not parties to the dispute such as Japan and India are siding against China.
China is often unwilling to discuss the dispute at regional bloc events such as this APEC summit. Beijing typically argues that such forums are not the proper venue for this discussion and would rather not have countries that are not a party to the dispute involved. There is some logic to this but then again, China it seems would rather avoid discussion of the issue entirely. Through its island building activities over the past two years, China is solidifying its hold over its possessions which essentially will ensure that Beijing will never relinquish its land claims. By avoiding the issue, China is perpetuating the dispute and making it more intractable.
President Obama was right to strongly state the ties the U.S. has to the Philippines and to reiterate the call on China to halt its activities. The U.S. must play a pivotal role in the region and cannot look weak or appearing to cater to Beijing’s position. Obama flexed U.S. muscle when the navy sailed a warship close to China’s possessions though it took months of wrangling and debate in Washington before that course of action was taken. The U.S. must be more assertive in dealing with China while also showing its willingness to work with Beijing towards mutual goals.