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Remarks of Senator Joe Lieberman at Center for Strategic and International Studies

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Location: Washington, DC

Today, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) delivered the following remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, his remarks as prepared for delivery are below:

"The South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific in Transition"

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

June 28, 2012

Thank you so much for that kind introduction, John, and for your many years of distinguished service to our nation, including, most recently, your leadership of CSIS.

Let me also thank our many guests and speakers who have come to Washington from all across the Asia-Pacific region to participate in this conference. I was in Singapore a little less than a month ago for the Shangri La Dialogue--so I know what a long flight you had to make it here. I am grateful for the chance to join you today, and I applaud CSIS for bringing together such a distinguished group of experts for this timely and important discussion.

The very fact of this conference is a testament to how much our world is changing. Just a few years ago, I would venture to say that there were very few people in Washington devoting much time or attention to the South China Sea. That, obviously, is no longer the case.

Today there is broad-based and bipartisan understanding--that stretches from Congress to the Executive Branch--that the United States has very significant national interests at stake in the South China Sea, and that whether or not disputes there are managed well will have strategic ripple effects far beyond its shores--in fact to America's shores.

I would like to speak this morning about American policy toward the South China Sea, but before I do so, let me step back and offer a broader context for this discussion.

President Obama--to his great credit, in my judgment--has made deepening the presence and engagement of the United States in the Asia-Pacific one of his signature foreign policy priorities. In pursuing this so-called "rebalancing" towards Asia, the Obama Administration is building upon a set of bipartisan commitments that stretch back decades, to the very dawn of America's arrival onto the world stage--and more recently, to the Clinton and Bush Administrations.

American policy in the Asia-Pacific is rooted in the reality that the United States is a Pacific power, and that the freedom, security and prosperity of Americans at home are inseparably linked to the freedom, security and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific.

As former Defense Secretary Bob Gates rightly put it during his final appearance at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore last year, "The commitment and presence of the United States as a Pacific nation has been one of relatively few constants amidst the furious changes in the region over the past half-century."

At the same time, however, I do think that there is something different that is taking place in our Asia policy. We are now devoting much greater diplomatic attention and energy to Southeast Asia, in particular. This part of the world receded from the forefront of American strategic considerations in the wake of the Vietnam War. Today, for a variety of reasons, it is ascendant.

In this sense, the United States is not just rebalancing to Asia; we are also rebalancing in Asia.

I said "rebalancing," not "pivoting," because we remain absolutely committed to our longstanding alliances in Northeast Asia as well. There is no diminution in their importance.

But what is different today is a sense of unprecedented opportunity to expand our partnerships and cooperation with the countries of Southeast Asia. There are possibilities that didn't exist a decade ago--either on a bilateral basis, or through the increasingly mature multilateral architecture of the region.

Over the past six months, I have had the opportunity to visit half a dozen countries that are members of ASEAN. In addition to Singapore, I've been to the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and Burma. Although the circumstances of each of these states are of course different, one thing they very much have in common is a desire to strengthen and broaden their ties with the United States. The question we must ask is whether we have the good judgment, vision, and determination to do what is necessary to seize these historic opportunities.

I believe that we have begun to do so. This is first and foremost thanks to the exceptional diplomacy of our Secretary of State and her talented Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, who spoke here yesterday.

The Secretary and Kurt have maintained a very high tempo of travel and personal engagement in the Asia-Pacific region and especially in Southeast Asia. Whoever follows in their footsteps will need to match their example, and make clear that the days of U.S. senior officials skipping summits in the Asia-Pacific are over.

But that is the easy part. The harder part is making the clear-headed decisions here in Washington that are going to be necessary to build our alliances and strategic partnerships, and sustain our political and economic engagement in the Asia-Pacific. To me, that means getting our American fiscal house in order--and soon. It means avoiding sequestration and investing in the military capabilities and force posture required in a dynamic and changing Asia-Pacific. And it means putting forward an ambitious, forward-looking trade agenda for the region.

It is often said that the business of Asia is business. But when it comes to new free trade agreements, the United States for the last few years has hung up an "out of business" sign.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a hopeful, new step in the right direction, and we need to move forward on it quickly. But we also need to take other bolder steps beyond TPP. For instance, because Burma has at last begun to open up and reform, it is time to put the idea of U.S.-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement on the table.

ASEAN already has FTAs with, among other countries, China, India, and Australia. ASEAN is a large market, with a population of 600 million people and a collective economy that is the third largest in Asia. ASEAN is already the fourth biggest trading partner of the U.S. in the world, with enormous potential for further growth.

Completion of a U.S.-ASEAN FTA will of course not happen overnight; to begin with, it will require considerably greater progress towards democratic and economic reform in Burma. But what better way for everyone in the region to stay invested in keeping Burma on the right track than making clear that a U.S.-ASEAN FTA will be one of the benefits of doing so?

America's deepening engagement in Southeast Asia is also a geopolitical imperative, and here we return to the question of the South China Sea.

A decade ago, when security experts convened to talk about the future of Asia, the discussion was inevitably dominated by two flashpoints: the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait. Today, the conversation still includes those two, but has expanded southward.

The United States is not a claimant in the South China Sea. But what happens in the South China Sea does matter to us, and not just because more than $1.2 trillion of U.S. trade flows through these waters every year, or because of our longstanding global commitment to upholding freedom of navigation and open access to the maritime commons, which incidentally has been one of the reasons why the Asia-Pacific region has been able to achieve such enormous economic growth in the decades since World War II.

It matters to us because what happens in the South China Sea will be a test of whether the geopolitics of a rising Asia is going to be defined by win-win cooperation or zero sum competition. It will be a test of whether disputes between countries in the Asia-Pacific will be resolved peacefully according to international law, or through coercion and force. And most important of all, the South China Sea provides a special test for China, of how Beijing will relate to its neighbors as it grows more powerful, and indeed of what kind of great power China will be.

The South China Sea is not primarily about U.S.-China relations. It is about China's relations with its neighbors. But China's conduct in the South China Sea will affect its relations with the United States, and everyone else. In this respect, what happens in the South China Sea really is everybody's business.

When China pursues policies in the South China Sea that are heavy-handed, or lack a basis in international law, it creates distrust, increases the danger of miscalculation, and leaves China more isolated in the region and the world. That is not an outcome that any of us want, least of all the United States.

On the contrary, the United States has for decades consistently supported China's integration into the global economy and the international system. We believe that has been good for America, good for China, and good for the world. America does not seek to contain China. We have no need to do so. As the Foreign Minister of Singapore recently said, the 21st century is big enough for both a strong and prosperous China and a strong and prosperous America. That is why no country in the Asia-Pacific should be forced to choose between Washington and Beijing.

Notwithstanding these truths, I am worried that China's current behavior in the South China Sea is pushing the region in the wrong direction and sending a message that is discouraging about what kind of great power China will be. The scope, nature, and basis of China's claims are fostering a climate of anxiety, and driving other parties to fortify their own claims. The lack of clarity over the rationale for China's nine-dashed line has been especially unsettling.

It doesn't need to be this way. In the Asia-Pacific region itself, there are hopeful precedents for peacefully resolving territorial disputes under international law -- for instance, between Malaysia and Singapore, and between Malaysia and Indonesia. Rather than being a combat zone for 19th century-like competition, the South China Sea and the enormous resources it contains should become a model for 21st century cooperation and joint development of the enormous resources under the sea in a way that benefits the people of this region and the world.

To do so, however, certain principles need to be recognized:

First, because multiple claims are overlapping, bilateral negotiations simply won't resolve all the outstanding differences. Only by working together in a multilateral context can the challenges of the South China Sea be addressed in a fair and comprehensive way. A first important step would obviously be for ASEAN and China to move as quickly as possible to agree on a code of conduct for the South China Sea.

Second, all parties need to recognize that disagreements over the South China Sea can only be settled on the basis of international law. Trying to solve these disputes on the basis of dueling historical claims, by contrast, is a recipe for endless disagreement, continuing tensions, and the risk of violence.

Third, we know from history that territorial disputes are often very emotional. Precisely for this reason, countries need to exercise restraint and moderation. In this respect, the recent de-escalation of tensions between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal is a hopeful development.

Fourth, although the disputes over the South China Sea are clearly international, resolving them will require domestic reforms. I was interested in a recent report of the International Crisis Group, for instance. It pointed out that responsibility for the South China Sea within the government of the People's Republic of China is claimed by a number of different entities. As a result, it often isn't clear who's in charge, which makes management of disputes and de-escalation of conflicts more difficult.

But it's not only China that needs to pursue domestic reforms. It is past time for the U.S. to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty. This is one of the central messages that, not surprisingly, I took away from my own travels in Southeast Asia this year. And I'm hopeful that by the end of 2012 the U.S. Senate will at last vote on this treaty and ratify it.

Finally, let me close by offering a prediction. As you know, the presidential campaign in the U.S. is now heating up. Polls suggest that it's going to be a very close election, and I agree with that. I have no doubt also that in the months ahead this campaign will provide if nothing else an excess of, in Shakespeare's term, "sound and fury."

But here is my prediction, which I believe is relevant to our discussion this morning. When it's all over, regardless of which candidate emerges the victor in the presidential contest in November, the basic direction of American foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific, including of course in Southeast Asia and with regard to the South China Sea, will remain unchanged. In other words, there really is a bipartisan consensus on this particularly important aspect of American foreign policy.

The importance of Southeast Asia and the South China Sea will continue to be recognized at the highest levels of the U.S. government. And my hope and my belief is that strong actions to implement that bipartisan policy consensus will also be taken by America's government in the years ahead, regardless of which party is privileged to lead it. Thank you very much.


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