Beijing's irritation with Washington's diplomatic activism in Southeast Asia is understandable -- great powers traditionally seek authority over the sea and land near their shores. But that is secondary. For China, the more important issue is its belief that a bonanza of oil lies beneath the South China Sea. If there are such riches, one of Beijing's premier concerns -- that it have secure access to sufficient natural resources to fuel its surging economy -- could at once shrink, along with China's reliance on the Persian Gulf.
As we speak, southeast Asian leaders are meeting in Phnom Penh, wringing their hands over how to reduce tension with China (pictured above, a show of unity). As suggested, the issue on its face is territorial -- China claims sovereignty over the whole of the South China Sea, across which half the world's seaborne trade travels, an estimated $5 trillion a year. But the actual flashpoint is oil and gas.
Southeast Asian nations, especially the Philippines, are seeking U.S. backing to fend off China as they pursue their own claims to the islands near their shores. The Obama Administration, eager to appear tough against accusations by its opponents of softness against China, has seemed happy to mediate, famously declaring a "pivot" of national interests to Asia.
Yesterday, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin renewed the war of words by suggesting that China is singling out his country with intimidation tactics because Manila's military is comparatively weak. "We are below par. So of course if you are going to bully, you would look for the weakest," Gazmin said, quoted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer. "You do not get someone who is your equal."
I had a chat with retired U.S. Rear Admiral Mike McDevitt, who said that the main U.S. strategic interests are to maintain naval rights to ply and conduct military exercises in the international sections of these busy waters, and that the territorial battles be settled peaceably.
Always, however, there is oil. If the South China Sea contains as much oil as some experts think, and Chinese companies can obtain access to it, "that would solve [China's] Malacca dilemma," McDevitt said. "They would not be nearly as dependent on the Persian Gulf." He said:
In 10 years it may turn out it isn't such a big deal. ... [But] if there were no resource implications, would everybody be so anxious to stake their claim and argue about sovereignty? Perhaps, but probably not.
Since neither the U.S. nor China is likely to back down vis-à-vis the other, conciliation will have to happen in the region itself. Retired Col. Larry Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, said China's civilian leaders appear to see that they are pushing their neighbors into a position of seeking U.S. help. "We are likely to see a moderating of behavior -- not a complete change, but a moderation," he told me. Wilkerson:
Such easing may give us an opening to work out challenges in a more enlightened spirit. If not, from the Philippines to Vietnam to Indonesia to Singapore, most if not all will be with the U.S. -- the hegemon 10,000 miles in the distant, versus the hegemon that hovers over them all.
Tang Chhin Sothy AFP/Getty Images
Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.