South China Sea issue presents US with predicament
By Matthew Pennington ,AP Sunday, July 29, 2012, 12:05 am TWN
WASHINGTON -- China has heightened tensions in the South China Sea with its new, remote island city and planned military garrison in a contested area viewed as a potential flashpoint for conflict in the Asia-Pacific.
How might the United States respond?
Criticize Beijing too strongly and the Obama administration will strain its relationship with the emerging superpower. Let it pass and undermine two years of intense diplomacy that has promoted the U.S. standing among Southeast Asian nations that are intimidated by China's rise.
A key plank of administration's engagement in the Asia-Pacific since 2010 has been its declaration of a U.S. national interest in the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea, where China and five of its neighbors — most notably the Philippines and Vietnam — have competing territorial claims.
But tensions have only escalated. China's raising of the flag this week at Sansha municipality on tiny Yongxing island, 220 miles (350 kilometers) from its southernmost province of Hainan, come as claimants jockey for influence in the resource-rich region.
China will not be able to project much military power from such a small outpost — with a population of just 1,000 people and scarcely room for an airstrip — but it has symbolic importance.
Beijing says the municipality will administer hundreds of thousands of square miles (kilometers) of water where it wants to strengthen its control over disputed — and potentially oil-rich — islands.
In Washington, lawmakers interested in Asia policy have been quick to respond. Republican Sen. John McCain called the move provocative and reinforced worries that China would attempt to impose its territorial claims through intimidation and coercion.
Democratic Sen. Jim Webb said China's attempt to assert control of disputed territories may be a violation of international law.
While the State Department was careful in its commentary, it also criticized China's "unilateral moves."
"I think there is a concern here, that they are beginning to take actions when we want to see all of these issues resolved at the table," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday.
President Barack Obama will not want to appear soft on China as he fights for re-election against Republican contender Mitt Romney, who has accused the incumbent of being weak on Beijing and has vowed to get tough, in particular, on China's trading practices.
However, the United States walks a fine line in its diplomacy on the South China Sea, always stressing it does not take a position on the competing sovereignty claims.
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