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TRNN Replay: Discussing the tension in the South China Sea, former Bush administration official Larry Wilkerson says the US should ratify the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea treaty – but won’t because of big oil and mining interests

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Recent reports that the Chinese government deployed a surface-to-air missile system to one of its contested islands in the South China Sea stoked the tensions amongst some of the other countries in the region, including Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commenting on the unfolding situation in the region said there is every evidence every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another. It is of a serious concern, he said. On to discuss this developing story situation is Lawrence Wilkerson. Lawrence is the former chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and he’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the college of William and Mary. And of course, he’s a regular contributor to the Real News Network. So Larry, thank you so much for joining us today. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. PERIES: So, Larry, why is China deploying these missiles into the, into the hotly-contested territory? They’re really raising the stakes here. Why are they doing this at this time? WILKERSON: It is a territory where trillions of dollars in commerce traverses almost every year. And it is a serious controversy, and I think we have to look at China’s substitution of nationalism for communism as its principle motivating force. Its new ideology is nationalism. And like Putin in Moscow, the more China stands up, or is apparent to its people standing up to the United States, the more solid this new ideology becomes, this nationalism. The flaw in that fabric for China, and for the United States, and indeed for the region and the world, is that at the same time, because of China’s economic success, principally, its military is gaining more and more force in power within the councils of decision-making in Beijing, and its military is increasingly dictating some of China’s policy, and the Chinese dare not counterman that dictation, because it is augmenting that ideology of nationalism. Look what they’ve done with Japan, for example. Regionally they’ve made Japan, quote, “the other”, unquote. And so they foreclose any meaningful diplomacy with Tokyo or vice versa Tokyo with Beijing, because Japan has become the regional bad guy, and the reinforcer of this new ideology of nationalism. So this is a very dangerous game that China is playing. On the same hand, it’s a dangerous game the United States is playing, and–. PERIES: Exactly. I was going to ask you, the United States is presenting itself as a third party here. How involved is the U.S. behind the scenes amidst these disputes going on in the region? WILKERSON: I think, as I was saying, the other side of this is the game the United States is playing, a serious game of maritime commerce, freedom of navigation and so forth. But we’re not playing it from the top of the deck, as it were. Look at us. We have not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. That’s the fundamental legal framework from which we should be coming. That’s how we can assert freedom of navigation, freedom of maritime commerce, and so forth, with the high standing that we should have. But our Senate has not ratified that treaty, and they’ve not ratified it because big oil and other mining interests besides big oil don’t want us to ratify, because they want to rape, pillage, and plunder the floor of the sea when the time comes to do so. They don’t want it to be the proceeds of that mining and that effort to go to the global commons as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea intimates it would. So we’re not operating from the high ground as we challenge China’s claims. We should be. The Senate should ratify that treaty. PERIES: Now, the commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin, has recently called on Australia to join the U.S. in freedom of navigation naval operations within the twelve miles of the contested area. What are you thinking in terms of the repercussions of all of this? WILKERSON: I’m thinking the Admiral chose another country that looks a lot like the United States in terms of the color of its skin and so forth and so on. I wouldn’t have done that. I’d have said Indonesia, Vietnam, Republic of the Philippines, Brunei, even. Any other country in the region, and in fact all of them, should probably routinely transit the South China Sea, and even transit it within twelve nautical miles of some of these contested atolls and outcroppings, because that’s the way you prove the point under the UN Convention. That’s the way you corroborate by practice and precedent the fact that this is considered by the majority of the world to be international waters and not Chinese sovereign waters. That’s the way you do it. You don’t get white people from another continent that looks and feels a lot like the United States to come do it with you. I think that was a mistake. Now, you will say, probably if you’re the Admiral, well, the Australians are the only ones who will do it. Well, that’s a problem. You need to get into ASEAN, you need to get into the councils of ASEAN, you need to get into these bilateral relationships we have with these countries. And you need to convince them that they need to some of the heavy lifting, too. They need to do some of this freedom of navigation, maritime transit exercises, too. You need, in essence, to gang up on China, in the sense that you bring as many people as possible into this argument so you have more evidence of what you’re trying to do, and of the innocence of what you’re trying to do, and ultimately the legality of what you’re trying to do. PERIES: And the other countries in the region concerned about this, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, on and on the list goes on. Is there a forum for them to negotiate, talk about this with China? WILKERSON: Well, of course there’s the ASEAN forum to speak with one voice, that includes most of these countries. And then there’s the permanent court of arbitration, there’s the International Court of Justice. There are all these tools that are available outside of shooting at one another that are available to solve some of these problems and some of these disputes. One or two of the Chinese claims might be legitimate. Most of them, I think, in their broad application, are not legitimate. The exclusive economic zone of different countries has to be considered here, and it has to be arbitrated. But there’s a regime under which it’s arbitrated. And it’s not the regime of shooting at one another. PERIES: I understand they have laid claim to almost 70 percent of the contested islands. WILKERSON: Sharmini, let me pull out one other thing before you go away. PERIES: Of course. WILKERSON: There are many war games in which I participated between China and the United States, most of them based, of course, on our war plan for the defense of Taiwan. Let me tell you how those war games always wind up. My marines had a metaphor for it. They call it the metaphor of the shark and the elephant. The U.S. is the shark. Its navy can’t go ashore and fight China without being defeated. And China’s the elephant. It can’t come off its shore without being defeated. So you’re involved in a conflict that, if it starts, inevitably gravitates to the use of nuclear weapons. That’s the only way the shark can influence the elephant, or the elephant the shark. We do not want that. We do not need that, the region or the world needs a nuclear war between China and the United States. That’s where all the war games lead that I’ve ever played in, and they’re quite a lot of them. PERIES: Larry, thank you for that. And we’ll be following this, as I’m sure you will be, and hope to have you back very soon. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.