South China Sea Do-Si-Do

A Wall Street Journal editorial looks at disputes between China and its neighbors over territory in the South China Sea, and what it means for the U.S.:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is holding to the line she laid down last July in Hanoi: The U.S. doesn’t take sides on the territorial disputes, but it wants to play a role in their peaceful resolution because of its wider interests in the region and its support for freedom of navigation on the high seas. That was a strong stand at the time. But as China continues to ratchet up tension it may be time for something stronger.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario was in Washington last week seeking clarification of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries. In case of an attack on the Philippines, the wording of that agreement only obligates Washington to “consult” and “act to meet the common dangers.” In the last few days the Philippine media has been chasing its tail trying to figure out whether Mrs. Clinton and U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas firmed up this U.S. commitment.

The real news is that the Philippines is coming back into the U.S. orbit. As recently as early this year, Manila seemed to be courting Beijing, for instance, by extraditing Taiwanese citizens to the mainland without consulting Taipei, thereby causing a rift with a major trading partner. Mr. Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, scuttled the efforts of Southeast Asian nations to negotiate as a bloc with China over the South China Sea, instead opting to cut a separate deal in late 2004 to sacrifice some Philippine claims so that joint oil exploration could go ahead.

The current about-face is the result of China overplaying its hand. Especially alarming is that the People’s Liberation Army seems to be calling China’s shots on the South China Sea. China’s navy vessels have been involved in confrontations even as its diplomats have been making conciliatory remarks. While it is too early to say that Beijing is going down the militarist road, it certainly has concentrated minds in Southeast Asian capitals.

See also a report from Xinhua.