The United States is pursuing greater influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
This is clearly a diplomatic challenge given China’s rise, but that is the very thing Washington wants to check, for which it needs other regional allies.
On Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 11-day regional tour she reiterated the importance of Indonesia to Washington’s engagement.
Clinton said: “The US doesn’t take a position on competing territorial claims over land features but we believe the nations of the region should work collaboratively together to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and certainly without the use of force.”
The message was meant for Beijing. After China, Indonesia is the region’s biggest country and has no claim to the disputed waters, so it is seen as neutral.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, in a lively response to Clinton’s remarks, said: “The US has repeatedly insisted that it will not hold a position on the South China Sea. We hope it can keep its promises and do more that is conducive to regional peace and stability, rather than the contrary.”
China wants to impose its sovereignty over several archipelagos, notably the collection of islands known as the Paracels, which Beijing has controlled since the end of the Second World War, although Vietnam also wants them.
There are also the Spratlys and the Scarborough islands that are in dispute with other countries in the neighbourhood. The interests are strategic and economic, involving petrochemical reserves and fishing resources.
Tension rose between Beijing and Tokyo last month, when an uninhabited chain of islands, the Sankaku to the Japanese and Diaoyu to the Chinese, when activists from Hong Kong landed, waving provocative flags.
Washington and Beijing are the centres of the world’s biggest economies and there is constant friction between them.
For years now the balance of trade has been in China’s favour, and accelerating alarmingly. The US trade deficit in the first quarter of this year was already roughly half last year’s total.
The US and China exchange accusations and counter accusations over
alleged distortions of competition, centred on China’s subsidies of certain exports and retaliatory trade tariffs imposed by the US. Several disputes are currently under world trade organisation arbitration.