This summer, Secretary Clinton gave a speech at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Hanoi that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called “in effect an attack on China
.” What did Clinton say that prompted such a direct response?
She called for negotiations over the rights to resource extraction in the South China Sea to be multilateral rather than bilateral
The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion. We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant. While the United States does not take sides on the competing territorial disputes over land features in the South China Sea, we believe claimants should pursue their territorial claims and accompanying rights to maritime space in accordance with the UN convention on the law of the sea.China, which is far and away the most powerful claimant of disputed, resource-rich territory in the South China Sea, has the most to lose in any opening up of negotiations to international mediation. The United States, meanwhile, has an interest in maintaining freedom of the seas and would rather not see China run rough-shod over its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors.
Sparring over the South China Sea is not new for the United States and China — the 2001 EP-3 collision and 2009 Impeccable incidents off Hainan are cases in point — but it does illustrate what may become a more familiar fault line in U.S.-China relations: resource access.
In a move reminiscent of Russia’s 2007 stunt in the Arctic Ocean, China recently planted a flag on the South China Sea floor with a newly revealed submersible that can dive deeper than any other in the world. According to The New York Times, a Chinese vice minister of science and technology said the trials “laid a solid foundation for [the submersible’s] practical application in resource surveys and scientific research.”
China’s growth — recently passing Japan as the second largest economy in the world and overtaking the United States in total energy consumption — has outstripped its domestic resource base.
In a 2009 U.S. Army War College report, Kent Butts and Brent Bankus pointed out the growing tension between the two powers over supply issues:
Continued economic growth in China requires access to foreign industrial and fuel minerals. In that regard, China is not unlike the United States in having a substantial natural resource base that has proven incapable of meeting the demands of an expanding domestic economy. Mineral imports are depended upon to supply the balance of industrial demand and the security of those mineral imports is of critical geo-strategic importance to both states.Exclusive Aid for Exclusive Access
As a result of China’s resource overshoot, the government has developed a sort of “Chinese Marshall Plan” of infrastructure development, debt-forgiveness, and aid in exchange for raw resource access, mostly in developing countries. And while China’s growth indicators may have just begun making news in the West, PRC planners have been making inroads for resource access since the 70s and 80s.
African states such as Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have been particularly targeted for investment, as well as similarly resource-rich but underdeveloped South American countries such Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru. China’s latest partner is Afghanistan, where the PRC is hoping to tap into the country’s vast mineral potential with a $3.5 billion copper mine in Aynak as well as a railway connecting it to Western China through Tajikistan.
Important, say Butts and Bankus in their report, is that “China’s intent is not to compete on the open market for natural resources, but to own them and their associated infrastructure to create a secure source of supply.”
Such a focused, widespread, and long-term strategy of quid pro quo resource acquisition is destined to conflict with the more laissez-faire American approach of simply outbidding the competition on the open market. Recent developments such as the U.S. scare over rare earth metals suggest Washington has been caught off guard.
Hearts and Minds
That brings us back to the South China Sea, where American concern over China’s maneuvering for more exclusive control of resources may have played a role in Secretary Clinton’s decision to take a stand on international mediation rather than bilateral negotiations at the ASEAN summit and mount a metaphorical “attack on China.” At the same conference, the United States also announced a “hearts and minds” commitment to Southeast Asia, with a $187 million investment in the Lower Mekong Initiative.
The Mekong, upon which nearly 60 million people rely, has reached record-low flow levels this summer and Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam have raised concerns that China’s damming upstream is leading to environmental and agricultural losses downstream. China blames the river’s low level on drought, but officials downstream are uneasy, saying they fear a “future in which their access to water will be controlled by China’s Ministry of Water Resources,” as Foreign Policy reports.
Investment in the Lower Mekong Initiative represents a smart counter to Chinese resource diplomacy by employing American soft power to not only improve individual livelihoods but to also potentially win valuable clout as a friend to Southeast Asia in the South China Sea dispute. It may also signal that Washington is serious about responding to China’s bilateral diplomacy and development strategy and maintaining open markets.
Incentive to Clash or Cooperate?
Butts and Bankus point out what Westerners often forget: that PRC planners are just as suspicious of American intentions as Washington is of theirs. They remember well America’s Cold War strategy of encirclement and eye U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, India, and Central Asia warily. China is also just as reliant on the Middle East for oil imports as the United States, if not more so, and is therefore apprehensive about a continued American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Seeing these American commitments and perhaps also recognizing the resource access issues behind its neighbor India’s “gravest threat to internal security,” China therefore views mineral and hydrocarbon access as vital to its security (see the recent tensions which Japan over islands in the East China Sea for a case in point) and has demonstrated its commitment to acquiring them in unconventional ways. Whether or not the United States should fear the special relationships developing between Chinese benefactors and some of the world’s most troubled states is unclear so far, but certainly the two seem destined to clash over the issue again.
For those who see U.S.-China cooperation as essential to any meaningful international action on climate change, this tension is an important one to unwind, as Secretary Clinton reminded us in her speech to foreign ministers from the lower Mekong countries at Hanoi, “managing this resource and defending it against threats like climate change and infectious disease is a transnational challenge.”
Sources: BBC, Christian Science Monitor, CNN, Foreign Policy, Mineweb, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, New York Times, Reuters, Transport Politic, U.S. Army War College, U.S. State Department, Wall Street Journal.
Photo Credit: Adapted from South China Sea map courtesy of www.southchinasea.org and Middlebury College.