VietNamNet Bridge – Robert Gates, US defence secretary, on June 4 warned that there were “increasing concerns” about recent Chinese provocations in the East Sea and other disputed waters in Asia.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates (photo: Reuters)
Vietnam and the Philippines have in recent weeks accused China of engaging in aggressive behaviour in the East Sea, escalating a long-running dispute over the waters.
“I fear that without rules of the road and agreed approaches to dealing with these problems that there will be clashes,” Mr Gates told the Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-profile Asian defence forum.
But asked whether the Chinese actions undermined Beijing’s mantra that China was pursuing a “peaceful rise”, Mr Gates said: “I don’t think it has risen to that level yet”.
Just over a week ago, Vietnam accused China of a “serious violation” of international law after Chinese coast guard vessels cut the cables of an oil exploration ship of PetroVietnam, the state energy company.
Then, last week, Manila protested to China over the unloading of construction materials by a Chinese vessel on a reef claimed by the Philippines, which raised fears that Beijing might abandon a nine-year old commitment not to start new construction on disputed land features in the East Sea.
While Mr Gates expressed concern about the increase in incidents, his comments appeared to mark a sharp reversal from the tougher approach taken by the US government last year. At the same conference in 2010, Mr Gates called on China to adhere to international law. The following month, Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, angered Beijing during a visit to Vietnam by declaring the South China Sea a national interest of the US.
Last year’s heightened US rhetoric came partly in response to appeals from south-east Asian countries for a stronger US role in the region to balance China. But the resulting tension between Beijing and Washington later raised concerns that the incumbent global naval power and a rising China could get into a conflict in their neighbourhood.
Najib Razak, prime minister of Malaysia, highlighted those concerns on Friday in calling for a security order that would not force countries in the region to choose between two blocs.
Meanwhile, Beijing continues to pledge that it is pursuing a “peaceful rise”. This doctrine includes assurances that China’s increasing economic, political and military clout will not pose a threat to any other country, and that Beijing will not seek the role of a hegemon.
General Liang Guanglie, China’s defence minister and the highest-ranking delegate Beijing has ever sent to the Shangri-La Dialogue, is expected to reiterate this message when he addresses the summit on June 5.
Washington’s softer line on China comes as the two countries are seeking to deepen their military dialogue which the US is reluctant to see disrupted again.
On Friday, the US and Chinese delegations held bilateral talks which both sides described as cordial. Last month, Chen Bingde, the People’s Liberation Army’s Chief of General Staff, paid a week-long visit to the US.
Mr Gates, who was making his final visit to Asia before stepping down as Pentagon chief later this month, told the forum that the US would maintain “robust military engagement” and increase port calls and naval engagements in the region. He also dismissed concerns that pressures on the Pentagon budget, as the US addresses its fiscal deficit, coupled with rising Chinese military budgets meant US influence in the region would wane.
“I will bet you a $100 that five years from now the United States’ influence in this region is as strong if not stronger than it is today,” he said.