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Washington finds it hard to maintain impartial stance

Publication Date : 18-09-2012

 

Washington has repeatedly said it will remain neutral in the territorial disputes between China and other Asian countries, but the implementation of this policy comes with ambiguity and sometimes, contradiction.

Since the Obama administration shifted its foreign policy priority to the Asia-Pacific region it has greatly enhanced its engagement in regional affairs both diplomatically and economically. In addition to strengthening ties with their allies and partners, the United States has tried to consolidate its power in the region by interfering in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

Amid escalating tensions between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, several US diplomats have said on different occasions over the past week that Washington will not take sides in the dispute, and that it is very sincere about its impartial position.

But on Aug. 28, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland admitted that the United States considers the islands to be called "Senkakus", the Japanese name for the disputed Diaoyu Islands, and covered by the US-Japan defence treaty.

"We've consistently said that we see them falling under the scope of Article 5 of the 1960 US-Japan Treaty," she said.

"We don't take a position on the islands, but we do assert that they are covered under the treaty."

Japan's Kyodo News Agency reported last Friday, that US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, ahead of his visit to China and Japan, reaffirmed to Japanese reporters that the Diaoyu Islands are under the protection of the US-Japan defence treaty.

Ted Carpenter, senior fellow for defence and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a think tank in Washington, said the US position on the Diaoyu Islands is "contradictory", according to Xinhua News Agency.

"The only way the US-Japan defence treaty should apply to those islands is if the United States regards them as Japanese territory," he said.

"If in fact Washington is neutral about the substance of the dispute, namely, we won't decide whether the islands belong to China or Japan, then clearly the defence treaty should not cover those islands," he said.

In the South China Sea, Washington is also finding it difficult to maintain an even-handed approach.

In July 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waded into the South China Sea territorial dispute by telling a regional security forum in Vietnam that a peaceful resolution of the disputes over the Nansha and the Xisha islands was in the US national interest.

She also suggested a multilateral solution to the question and called for "a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes".

China, which has overlapping claims in the South China Sea with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines, has been continually trying to solve the issue through bilateral negotiation.

Bonnie Glaser, Asian security expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, pointed out that being "objective and fair" in the territorial disputes will give credibility to US policy, but said she saw the State Department make an "unfortunate departure" from the impartial position in its Aug. 3 statement on the South China Sea issue after China upgraded the administrative level of Sansha City.

"By singling out China for reproach by name and not mentioning the provocative actions of other claimants, the US provided Beijing with ammunition to argue that Washington has taken sides against China and undermined the US stance that the South China Sea disputes should be managed based on a principled approach," she said in the prepared written testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Wednesday.

"The US damages its credibility by not acknowledging the violations of other parties."

She told China Daily in a recent interview that US officials have been ambiguous when talking about whether the disputed Huangyan Island is included in the US-Philippines 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty.

"The treaty was signed in 1951, which predated the Philippines claims to those particular reefs and shores. The wording is somewhat ambiguous, and more importantly, the statements made by the US officials are ambiguous. In my view, that is deliberate," she said.

"The United States does not want to signal that it would never come to the Philippines' assistance if its claim or control over that area was threatened, because we don't want to give the Philippines a blank check and embolden them to act."

But Washington does not want to give Beijing an opportunity to seize the area by saying the island is not covered by the treaty, she added.

"So the US, from an observers' view, sees the ambiguity as serving much to its interest."

 

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