U.S. efforts to counter the rise of Chinese military power in the Pacific faced a significant setback this week when Beijing dispatched two surveillance ships to assert sovereignty over a chain of small islands governed by Japan.
The Chinese deployment came just days after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the region and called on Beijing and neighboring countries to ease the territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas.
“Now is the time for everyone to make efforts to reduce tensions and strengthen the diplomatic involvement,” Mrs. Clinton said Sunday at the end of a trip that appears to have had little impact on China’s desire to demonstrate its power in the region.
Mrs. Clinton’s visit was part of the Obama administration’s stated “pivot” of geopolitical resources toward Asia. While the pivot has so far seen new emphasis placed on U.S. alliances with Australia, the Philippines and Vietnam, the limits of U.S. influence are being exposed by China’s ongoing muscle-flexing, many analysts say.
The question of what the United States can actually do to ease tensions is one “currently stumping a lot of people at the State Department,” said Christian Le Miere, the research fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
The South and East China seas have long been rich fishing grounds and now are known to contain many undersea oil and gas fields as well. Tensions between China and its neighbors over competing territorial claims there have simmered for years.
On Tuesday, the friction increased when China’s surveillance ships reached the waters around the Diaoyu islands — known in Japan as the Senkaku islands. Tokyo dispatched a Japanese Coast Guard cutter in response Wednesday.
While tiny, the islands are considered strategically vital because they sit astride major shipping lanes, in addition to the fishing and drilling rights in the East China Sea that sovereignty over them brings.
Analysts say competing territorial claims are fueled by a determination on the part of the region’s smaller nations to secure their access to such resources in the shadow of China’s rise as a regional superpower.
“The level of political and diplomatic tension over the South China Sea is not a passing phenomenon,” said Victor Cha, who heads the Asian Studies program at Georgetown University in Washington.
U.S. officials have called for the region’s territorial disputes to be resolved through multilateral diplomacy among all the claimants,and free of Chinese military menance.
Mr. Le Miere said the United States “has to tow a careful line” in the region.
If U.S. officials insert themselves too aggressively into what China regards as a series of bilateral disputes, it will likely provoke a stern diplomatic rebuff from Beijing and jeopardize some of delicate alliances Washington is now attempting to nurture in the region, Mr. Le Miere said.
Mr Cha agreed that U.S. officials needed to carefully calibrate their diplomacy, but for another reason.