Obama and Asian Leaders Confront Wen Jiabao over South China Sea

In recent months, the U.S. has taken a more assertive position on conflicts in the South China Sea, and the efforts came to fruition this weekend at the East Asia Summit in Indonesia, when several of the leaders attending challenged Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao over his country’s stance on the dispute. From the New York Times:

Premier Wen Jiabao was by turns “grouchy” and constructive as he responded to the concerns aired by almost all of the leaders attending the East Asia Summit, said one of the administration officials, who spoke to reporters aboard Air Force One as Mr. Obama returned from an eight-day diplomatic swing around the Pacific Rim.

The meeting, at the end of the summit, capped a week during which Mr. Obama moved quickly, and on several fronts, to restore the influence of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region after years of preoccupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. He announced that 2,500 Marines would be stationed in Australia; opened the door to restored ties with Myanmar, a Chinese ally; and gained support for a regional free-trade bloc that so far omits Beijing.

The announcements appeared to startle Chinese leaders, who issued a series of warnings that claimed the United States was seeking to destabilize the region.

Xinhua, meanwhile, has published an opinion piece arguing that the Philippines, one country with whom China is embroiled in a territorial dispute over portions of the South China Sea, is not important enough for the U.S. to risk its relationship with China over:

As to some of the foul-mouthed Philippine officials, their performance has thus far been taken as an echo posture to Washington’s “Return to Asia” strategy.

But people cannot help but wonder how much the South China Sea issue virtually means to the U.S., and what is the true significance of the Philippines’ high-pitched claims over the sea.

First, it is an unwise move if it insists on playing a meddling hand in the South China Sea disputes. Some analysts take it risky that Washington would stake its prestige on a remote and strategically third-rate ally when it provokes a clash with a neighboring far stronger nation, whom the U.S. has been increasingly counting on to recover its dislocated economy, combat terrorism and shared challenges, and deal with a host of global problems.

A couple of months ago, Prof. Lyle Goldstein painted a doleful picture in the Foreign Policy magazine. He said if U.S. leaders heed his advice, they should shed most commitments in Southeast Asia, which he portrays as a region of trivial importance situated adjacent to an increasingly powerful China. He maintained that “Southeast Asia matters not a whit in the global balance of power.”

For more on the U.S. role in the South China Sea dispute, see previous CDT posts including, “What to Make of US Military Presence in the Asia Pacific” and “Tensions Rising on the South China Sea.”

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