Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's comments about U.S. interests in the resolution of competing claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea caused Beijing to lash out at what it perceived as unwarranted U.S. intervention in a matter outside its concern. China maintains extravagant claims over virtually the entire body of water. As the fracas over the newly assertive U.S. position unfolded, many analysts saw the influence of Vietnam on the U.S. calculus. It is true that the Vietnamese have been leading the charge in resisting Beijing's effort to turn the South China Sea into a "Chinese lake," and the fact they were hosting the regional forum where this conflict burst into the open only fueled speculation that they had encouraged the previously soft-on-China Obama administration to enter this convoluted and contentious fray.
But recent reporting on an incident that took place in Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) suggests that Vietnam is not the only Southeast Asian country that has been prevailing upon the U.S. to engage more sharply on this highly sensitive issue. The August 3 edition of the Mainichi Daily News, a Japanese newspaper, reported on a June 23 confrontation over a fleet of 10 Chinese fishing vessels operating without permission in Indonesia's EEZ. A stand-off over the Indonesian navy's seizure of a Chinese fishing boat almost got out of control when a Chinese "fishery management vessel" – which was actually a repurposed heavy gunboat – threatened to fire on the Indonesian navy patrol boat. According to the article, the fishery management vessel pointed its large-caliber machine gun at the carbon-hulled Indonesian craft, at which point the outgunned patrol boat released the errant Chinese trawler. The article says that a similar episode occurred in May, with the same large Chinese warship having likewise successfully threatened an Indonesian naval patrol that was detaining an illegal Chinese fishing boat.
Since China's March declaration that its "indisputable sovereignty" over the South China Sea was a "core national interest" – on par with the sensitive issues of Taiwan and Tibet – the situation in that strategic body of water has been steadily heating up. With China's claims conflicting with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia, and control over not only vital sea-lanes but also potentially valuable natural resources at stake, such a declaration was bound to raise the temperature on these long simmering disputes. There have been many incidents over the years of Chinese ships detaining Vietnamese and Filipino boats and fishermen, and other tense standoffs in these highly contested waters. What sets this incident apart is its location off the Natuna Islands, well outside the notorious "u-shaped" line that demarcates China's claim to the South China Sea. That China so blatantly disregarded Indonesia's EEZ, and went so far as to send its fishermen into it with heavily armed "fishery management vessels" seems a clear sign that Beijing is not content to push around its much smaller neighbors, but is feeling confident enough to take on the largest and strongest country in Southeast Asia.
Right now, with the apparent encouragement of other countries in the region, the Obama administration is talking tough about the South China Sea and seems to be pushing back across the board on Chinese arrogance and adventurism. While this is certainly a welcome development, the issue here is now one of staying power. With their aggressive posturing, China has made it easy for the U.S. to make diplomatic inroads with the other claimants just by showing up and supporting a multi-lateral mechanism to resolve competing claims. Having gotten involved in the region's most intractable dispute with China, the next steps – including ensuring Indonesia has appropriate tools to vigorously protect its territorial waters and the EEZ – will require a more serious investment of diplomatic resources. The region needs partners it can count on for the long haul, because China is not going anywhere. Beijing can easily revert back to the old Deng Xiaoping "bide our time" strategy that has served them so well, and renew the charm offensive that had gained substantial ground in recent years. They could also decide to up the stakes and resolve the issue through economic and military coercion. If either scenario happens, will an easily distracted or conflict-averse America walk away and leave our friends in Southeast Asia to Beijing's tender mercies? That is certainly what the Chinese think will happen, and it has to be a worry for those who were buoyed by the recent interventions.