The Role For The U.S. In The South China Sea

Read Sen. James Webb's Wall Street Journal piece "The South China Sea's Gathering Storm."

As tensions mount between China and several neighboring countries over control in the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. Sen. James Webb talks with NPR's Neal Conan about the role the United States can and should play in the growing disputes in the South China Sea.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Yesterday, the Chinese government sent two patrol boats to reinforce its claim to the Senkaku Islands, uninhabited spits of land in the East China Sea that most of the world recognizes as part of Japan. Further south, China not only asserts a claim to disputed island groups, it's effectively annexed them. In a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, United States Senator Jim Webb argues we're - now reached an unavoidable moment of truth that could determine the stability of East Asia and the future of U.S.-China relations.

James Webb is a Democrat from Virginia, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs and joins us now by phone from Washington. Senator Webb, good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

SENATOR JIM WEBB: Good. How are you?

CONAN: We're going to get to your op-ed in just a minute, but I wanted to begin with the news out of Libya. You spent a lot of time abroad representing the United States in various capacities. This is a clip of tape from Secretary of State Clinton's remarks this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: Today, many Americans are asking - indeed, I asked myself - how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and at times how confounding the world can be. But we must be clear-eyed even in our grief. This was an attack by a small and savage group, not the people or government of Libya.

CONAN: And, Senator Webb, in light of that question, how are you making sense of this?

WEBB: Well, first, let's just stop and remember the service and the sacrifice of four people who were killed in this incident, including Ambassador Stevens who had two different - two previous tours in Libya before he returned as ambassador. Have you ever heard of the movie "Rules of Engagement"?

CONAN: Sure.

WEBB: I wrote it.

(LAUGHTER)

WEBB: And it was - the set-up actually was very similar to some of the things you're seeing right now, although the set-up occurred in Yemen, and this movie came out in the year 2000. I think there's not a lot of ways to try to make a logical sense out of some of the things that Secretary Clinton was raising. I spent time as a journalist in Beirut when the Marines were there in the 1980s. I have spent time as a journalist in Afghanistan, in '04, before I ran for the Senate.

I think we need to begin with the, you know, accepting the reality that this is a region that is so frequently dominated by unrest and violence. There are many portions of it that are tribal, frequently lawless. And as we measure our national interest in this part of the world, we have to tread very carefully.

So you know, you're going to have to, on the one hand, accept that there is a certain amount of violence that goes into the - hopefully the transformation in some parts of that region. And on the other hand, I've been saying very strongly, since before the invasion of Iraq, that the United States does not belong as an occupying power in that part of the world. And that doesn't apply to - directly to the situation in Libya, but it does apply to how we articulate our foreign policy and measure our national interest, as compared, by the way, to the situation that we find ourselves in in East Asia.

CONAN: Well, let's get to that and to the op-ed you wrote for The Wall Street Journal. And just as a reminder, we're talking about the South China Sea, two island groups, the Spratlys and the Paracels. There are overlapping claims to those islands, which - those waters carry an enormous percentage of the world's maritime traffic. There's thought to be enormous deposits of oil and gas beneath them. But Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan and others claim those waters in various parts. China claims them all. In your op-ed, you remind us that in recent weeks, China has effectively just annexed them.

WEBB: Well, this situation has been going on for a long time. It's been escalating, particularly over the last couple of years. And again, let me start by saying that I have spent a great part of my life in and out of East and Southeast Asia. And when I came to the Senate, I sought the chairmanship of the subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific. And we really tried to focus over the last six years on American relations in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and to change the formula in Burma.

I was the first American leader to visit Burma or Myanmar - take your choice - in more than 10 years in '09 when we went in and I think made the first steps to opening up that country in a way that will be productive for our interests and for the region. With respect to the issues in the Pacific waters, you're right. This is the busiest waterway in the world commercially, and it also has seen a lot of disputes over time with respect to sovereignty. Who owns these island territories? There are reasons of national pride involved in that, and there are also issues particularly relating to the future of potentially valuable resources underneath them.

It's kind of ironic when I look back at my Senate campaign because the last debate that I had in the '06 campaign, my opponent and I were allowed to ask each other one direct question, and I asked him what he thought we should do in the Senkaku Islands. And I think a lot of people thought that maybe was a low blow. But the Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by China and Japan, have become a hot spot for the last two and a half years now. They are off the - between Taiwan and Okinawa. They are important, not only for the potential resources but because, as we have focused on Taiwan for so many years in terms of the situation with China, China has claimed sovereignty in the Senkakus.

She's claimed sovereignty in the Paracels, in the Spratly Islands and has never accepted Japanese claims of sovereignty over Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands. That is a huge swath of territory which, if you add it up, is more than I think two million square kilometers, more than the land area of China, Vietnam, the Philippines combined. Excuse me, I didn't mean to say China.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

WEBB: I meant Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan combined. And the position of the United States since World War II has been enormously valuable to the stability of this region. We have been the guarantor of stability in a region where the power has shifted over history between China, Russia and Japan. It's the only place in the world, if you look at the - around the Korean Peninsula, where the direct national interests of these countries intersect and historically have interchanged. So what we have tried to do is not to be the instigator in this region, but it has fallen upon us to be, in many cases, the mediator and the guarantor of stability.

CONAN: Well, the United States position - United States has no claims on any of that territory but says, first of all, these are international waters available to anybody. And, second of all, China, you should negotiate with these various parties, to these various other claimants as a group rather than try to negotiate one by one and divide and conquer.

WEBB: That is true. And, in fact, there are two important issues here. One is the rights of navigation, and the other are the sovereignty issues themselves. And we have been pushing very hard on - in the Senate and also in this administration - to try to bring these issues to a place where they can be resolved in a multilateral environment. This is something that I introduced a bill in in the Senate last year. We got unanimous support condemning Chinese use of military force off of the Philippines last year. And China's policy in the waterways, but also even in areas like the Mekong River, where they are building upstream dams and will not recognize downstream water rights. Their policy has been only to deal in a bilateral way. In other words, nation to nation. And they are so dominant that it just doesn't allow for a solution of the problems. And we're now seeing, as you mentioned, three different areas in the waterways where we are going to have to find a formula to resolve these issues or we, you know, we risk a different situation in terms of how China is being viewed in that part of the world.

CONAN: Senator James Webb, a Democrat of Virginia, who will be retiring after this term. He's talking to us about an article that he wrote for The Wall Street Journal, the looming crisis in the - excuse me, "The South China Sea's Gathering Storm." You can find a link to it at our website. That's at npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Senator Webb, you mentioned the gathering storm. There's a possibility - nobody is interested in a war in that region, I don't think. But the actions of the Chinese, the semi-official daily - the People's Daily - when Secretary Clinton brought this up most recently - told her to, quote, "Shut up."

WEBB: I think that the thing that we all should be concerned about, you know, in spite of the fact that our attention becomes so continually diverted to the Arab world and to the issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that the power structure in East Asia over time, over the past more than 100 years, has been very volatile when one of those three countries - Japan, China or Russia - becomes so dominant that it becomes more aggressive in the region. And one of the things that we are seeing recently is that the Chinese have used a different formula in the South China Sea.

And just in the past couple of months, for instance, rather than simply asserting that they have sovereignty claims in the Paracels, which is also claimed by Vietnam, they have created a new government structure, and they have put a military garrison in the Paracels. And this new structure that they have created, this new prefecture, as it were, that reports directly to the central government is in their view responsible for the South China Sea Islands all the way down almost to the Strait of Malacca. That's about two million square kilometers.

This is a major step. It's different than simply the arguments over sovereignty that we've seen before. And that's why I wrote in The Wall Street Journal that this is a moment where the United States is going to have to step up and show some leadership. We need to, you know, to address this in a different way than we have in the past. What we've said in the past is essentially we take no position on sovereignty claims - and we don't, by the way. But this is different than a sovereignty claim. This is an actual creation of a government structure and an assertion that that is a part of China. We have to find a way to address this directly.

CONAN: I have to ask you, as the chairman of the relevant subcommittee, you have a strong voice in this issue, which, as you say, is going to be very important in the years to come. You've chosen to retire at the end of this term. Given the importance you put on this, wouldn't you have a stronger voice if you continue in the Senate?

(LAUGHTER)

WEBB: Well, my own personal career - my professional career, I have spent almost exactly half my time in public service and half of my time doing other things, particularly writing. It's just the, you know, the unwitting cycle that my career has taken. And I have been writing and speaking about this issue for a very long time, and I know that I will continue to do so. I wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal in '01 - 11 years ago, talking about how this incrementalism was affecting the ability of the United States to maintain this presence that allowed the region to grow, and the governmental systems to adapt and modernize, basically. And we've had an enormous positive impact in this region, and we need to continue to do that.

But since I've been in the Senate, we are focused on this. The first hearing I held as the chairman on the subcommittee was on sovereignty issues in this area. And as I said, we passed the Senate resolution last year. I'm holding a hearing next week to bring a State Department witness in and have a discussion about how the United States should proceed forward on this. And when I leave the Senate, I'll still be talking about it and participating in the issues, I hope.

CONAN: Senator Webb, we'll follow the hearings and your subsequent career with interest. Thanks very much for your time today.

WEBB: Thank you. Good to be with you.

CONAN: James Webb, the Democrat from Virginia, United States senator. By the way, we'll have more on this when we talk with Robert Kaplan tomorrow in this hour about why mountains rather than money and rivers and oceans and seafronts and what the Chinese call the first chain of islands - those include places like Japan, Korea, the Ryukyus and the Philippines - hem them in as a maritime power. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION broadcasting today from NPR West in Culver City, California.

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