A step forward, then a step back in South China Sea dispute

Yesterday brought good and bad news in the spat over sovereignty in the South China Sea. At a meeting of the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Bali, Indonesia, representatives from the ASEAN countries and China agreed upon a set of guidelines for resolving territorial disputes in the sea, where six countries - China, Vietnam, the Phillippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan - have overlapping sovereignty claims. The new deal, as outlined by the Jakarta Post, builds off the body's Declaration of Conduct (DOC), a nonbinding agreement signed in 2002 aimed at facilitating a legal agreement to resolve sovereignty disputes and prevent conflict in the region

Official reactions to the ARF deal have varied. Chinese assistant foreign minister and meeting co-chair Liu Zhenmin has called the agreement a "milestone document," and his fellow co-chair, Vietnamese assistant foreign minister Pham Quang Vinh, said it was "significant and a good start."  Nonetheless, it's important to note that the adopted guidelines are not legally binding; they merely reiterate the need to conform with the DOC, and they also lack a deadline for the implementation of a legal accord to resolve the conflict. Filipino Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario highlighted this concern when he said that more steps were needed to "add teeth" to the new deal.

Events later on Wednesday confirmed the Philippines's dissatisfaction with the ARF agreement. Four Filipino lawmakers and a Filipino military general ignored strong warnings from China and visited the island of Pagasa, the only island in the Spratlys populated by Filipinos, in a "peace and sovereignty mission." They joined residents to sing the national anthem and called for improvements in facilities on the island, which has no schools or hospitals for its 60 inhabitants. A spokesman from the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed outrage about the visit.

Wednesday's events came as Hillary Clinton wrapped up her tour of India and prepared to join ASEAN representatives at the security forum in Bali. At the same meeting last year, she surprised Chinese officials when she called resolution of the sovereignty disputes a "leading diplomatic priority" for the U.S. She looks set to reiterate the position this year. We'll see whether China agrees.



Did the U.S. promise Pakistan no more raids?

The May 2nd Navy Seal raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad led to a crisis in relations between the United States and Pakistan that is still being felt. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in Islamabad now, is the latest high level envoy sent to try to mend fences. Officials say he is on a mission to "bridge the trust gap and repair ties" with his Pakistani counterparts in the intelligence world. But, as part of its fence-mending initiative, did the United States really promise Pakistan's government they wouldn't take a similar unilateral action again in the future?

That's what Pakistan's prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, is claiming in an interview today with the Guardian.

"They have assured us in future there will be no unilateral actions in Pakistan, and there would be co-operation between both agencies," he said, identifying Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as personally pledging that to him.

Pakistan's President made a similar -- though less explicit -- statement after he met with Secretary Clinton back in May.  He said, both sides agreed to "work together in any future actions against high-value targets in Pakistan."

No similar statements have come from the American side, however. In fact, public comments from Clinton and others would seem to contradict Pakistan's understanding. After the raid, Clinton told CBS News, "We've made it clear to people around the world that if we locate someone who has been part of the al Qaeda leadership, then you get him or we will get him."

President Obama has also said, given similar circumstances, the United States would act the same way.

"Our job is to secure the United States," he told the BBC in May. "We are very respectful of the sovereignty of Pakistan. But we cannot allow someone who is actively planning to kill our people or our allies' people."

In his interview with the Guardian, Gilani said the United States could have trusted Pakistan's intelligence service to help in May's raid, but since that didn't happen, the country "had a lot of reservations" about the operation.

He told the Guardian any future operation in its territory would be "totally unacceptable."

Public opinion would further aggravate against the United States and you cannot fight a war without the support of the masses. You need the masses to support military actions against militants.

Perhaps as a sign of the fraying relationship, last night Gilani told an audience of British and Pakistani business leaders in London that China -- not the United States -- was his country's most important foreign relationship.

"China is a rising power and Pakistan's all-weather friend. This is a relationship that has no parallel. Uniquely, there are no downs but only ups in Pakistan-China relations. China is a source of pride and strength for us," the prime minister said.