When Cui Tiankai, China's vice foreign minister, warned U.S. officials in Honolulu on June 22 that "individual countries [in Southeast Asia] are playing with fire" and that he hoped the fire "doesn't reach the United States," it was a major departure from the customary rhetoric of summitry. China's message: Do not intervene in the Spratly Island dispute of the South China Sea, where five other claimants are jostling with Beijing for the rights to exploit the potentially rich, undersea energy deposits of the area.
In this atmosphere, the China-Vietnam relationship, which has been on a generally positive course since 1990, has suddenly veered into a dangerous crisis. Vietnam has conducted live-fire drills as an apparent warning to Beijing, and U.S. officials have chimed in with "increasing concerns" and have also moved to strengthen the traditionally close ties with the Philippines, one of the claimants in this maritime territorial dispute. At a meeting with Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen in Beijing on July 11, Chinese Army Chief Chen Bingde described U.S. joint exercises with Vietnam and the Philippines as "extremely inappropriate". With three wars now under way in the Middle East, U.S. leaders would do well to reflect on how "smart power" rather than military brinkmanship can point the way out of the present crisis and toward a more stable and peaceful Asia-Pacific region.
For much of the last decade, the South China Sea had actually been relatively quiet thanks to a 2002 agreement between Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on a "code of conduct" for the South China Sea. The agreement helped mitigate tensions that had built up after naval skirmishes in 1988 and by further aggressive jockeying in the 1990s. Scholar Joshua Kurlantzick and others had actually described China's approach in Southeast Asia over the past decade as a "charm offensive," the centerpiece of which was a China-ASEAN free trade agreement that may have helped cushion the region from the worst of the recent global recession.
However, the deployment of Chinese nuclear submarines and other advanced warships to a new and sprawling base at Hainan Island on the South China Sea had raised eyebrows around the region during the last decade. Major tensions began to flare in the spring of 2009, when a clutch of Chinese ships harassed a U.S. surveillance vessel operating in international waters south of Hainan Island. Such Cold War-type surveillance operations are still routinely conducted by the U.S. armed forces all along China's coast (but outside the 12-mile territorial limit) -- a practice that Chinese military leaders consider to be gravely threatening and that they now identify as a major barrier to U.S.-China military cooperation. Dangerous interactions between U.S. and Chinese aircraft and vessels have become the norm, and one life has already been lost, in the April 2001 surveillance-plane incident, which also took place close to Hainan Island in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, local states, such as Vietnam, have been vigorously pursuing energy exploration in areas that are close to or within China's vast claim line that encompasses virtually the entire area of the South China Sea. When Hanoi announced in 2009 that it intended to spend significant funds to purchase six submarines from Russia, it became amply evident that the regional arms race, already simmering for some years, was heating up in earnest.