Chinese military forces conducted live-fire drills in the South China Sea, even as Chinese diplomats sought to rebut the warning about “Beijing’s aggressive actions” that Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered on a tour of Southeast Asia.
“It is not China that deliberately provokes disputes in the South China Sea and sows discord between regional countries,” Chinese Foreign Minister Zhao Lijian said Wednesday. “The freedom of navigation in the South China Sea claimed by the U.S. is nothing but the ‘freedom of trespassing’ enjoyed by U.S. advanced military aircraft and vessels in saber-rattling and making provocations.”
Zhao made that argument as Chinese People’s Liberation Army forces began live-fire drills in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims as Chinese territory in defiance of an international ruling and the claims of several smaller states in the region. Blinken challenged those claims as he unveiled the State Department’s “vision” for the Indo-Pacific in an address delivered from Indonesia, which does not claim sovereignty over any South China Sea waters but stands to lose economic rights if China’s claims take anchor.
“Countries across the region want this behavior to change,” Blinken said Tuesday in Jakarta. “We do, too, and that’s why we're determined to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s aggressive actions there threaten the movement of more than $3 trillion worth of commerce every year.”
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That address aired in a lull between two rounds of live-fire drills in the South China Sea, which reportedly are taking place in such quick succession due to training time lost during the pandemic. “So, they need to catch up and complete their targets by the end of the year,” a Chinese PLA source told the South China Morning Post.
Those drills play into Blinken’s rhetorical strategy for building a coalition that can mitigate threats from a truculent China. “The most important thing for Southeast Asians is feeling that the U.S. has a positive vision for them and is trying to help solve problems that they have,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Zack Cooper said. “It’s not to say that ‘China is an opponent to us in this way and that way,’ but to say, ‘Here’s what we want the region to look like, and we’re going to support countries that want to make that happen, and we’re going to respond to countries that don’t.’”
Blinken displayed that sensibility in Jakarta. “The goal of defending the rules-based order is not to keep any country down,” he said. “Rather, it’s to protect the right of all countries to choose their own path, free from coercion, free from intimidation. It’s not about a contest between a U.S.-centric region or a China-centric region.”
In any case, the efficacy of that approach, in comparison to China’s posture, could have enormous consequences for the competition between the United States and China. “The population of Southeast Asia is roughly 650 million, which is far more than, say, the European Union,” Cooper observed. “And it’s not just big, it’s also growing. ... And most of these countries, right now, are trying to make choices about the alignment decisions that they’re going to have to make over the next few decades.”
Blinken implicitly set before those countries the question of whether they want to live under China’s shadow by reminding them that Chinese Communist officials have ignored “an international tribunal delivered a unanimous and legally binding decision rejecting” China’s claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea.
“We and other countries, including South China Sea claimants, will continue to push back on such behavior,” he said. "It’s also why we have an abiding interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, consistent with our long-standing commitments.”
Zhao, the foreign ministry spokesman, dismissed “the so-called South China Sea arbitration” and countered by faulting the United States for declining to sign an international treaty on the law of the sea.
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“The U.S. has made itself an example of hegemony and bullying by throwing its weight internationally, wantonly imposing unilateral sanctions, exercising long-arm jurisdictions, overstretching the concept of national security to hobble foreign companies, and employing economic coercion,” Zhao said.