SPEAKING FREELY Rising China tests the watersBy Abraham M Denmark and Daniel M Kliman
With joint exercises between the navies of the United States and Vietnam kicking off, Washington and Beijing’s rivalry over the South China Sea is heating up. Although exercises with Vietnam involve non-combat training such as search and rescue, they reinforce recent remarks by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Speaking at last month’s meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Clinton affirmed that peacefully resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea amounted to a US ”national interest”. What followed was a sharp retort from one claimant – Beijing – with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi labeling Clinton’s remarks as an ”attack”.
Conflicting claims in the South China Sea, which involve China and five other nations in the region, have long flown under the radar in Washington. Only now, as the South China Sea makes headlines, has understanding of the issue increased.
For decades, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, and Malaysia have claimed sovereignty over all or part of the South China Sea. China’s claim, which encompasses roughly the entire body of water from China’s south coast past Vietnam and the Philippines, reaching almost to Singapore, is by far the most ambitious. Its claim is based on maps from the 1930s and some shards of Chinese pottery discovered on currently uninhabited islands.
Behind claims to the South China Sea lie fundamentally realpolitik considerations: control of trade routes, access to natural resources, and fear.
Annually, one third of the world’s maritime trade traverses the South China Sea, which is also home to some of the largest untapped stores of oil and natural gas in the world – some optimistic Chinese analysts refer to it as ”the second Persian Gulf”. The South China Sea is a major highway linking the oil fields of the Middle East and the factories of East Asia. Over 80% of China’s oil imports flow through the South China Sea, and Japan and South Korea likewise receive the lifeblood of their economic engines via this strategic waterway. As influential Asia-watcher Robert Kaplan has put it, the South China Sea’s importance to the region makes it the ”Asian Mediterranean”.
Also intertwined with the South China Sea dispute is Southeast Asian uncertainty about the nature of China’s rise. Although Beijing has become a key trading partner for most of the region, decades of military expansion (especially in the maritime sphere) has made Southeast Asian capitals understandably concerned about Chinese maritime claims.
Tensions in the South China Sea have waxed and waned over the years, occasionally leading to violent confrontation. Most recently, in 2002, China and ASEAN signed a Declaration which committed all claimants to peacefully resolve their disputes. Since this signing, several claimants have submitted their disputes to international organizations for arbitration. Most recently, Singapore and Malaysia resolved a dispute using the International Court of Justice.
China, however, remains outside this trend of reconciliation and international arbitration. It has attempted to keep disputes bilateral, apparently believing that its expanding economic and military power will force the smaller countries of Southeast Asia to eventually acquiesce. This explains Beijing’s vigorous rejection of Secretary Clinton’s offer for multilateral arbitration – China’s ability to coerce smaller states will decrease when they have neighbors and the United States behind them. Unfortunately for China, the number of parties involved and Beijing’s signing of the 2002 Declaration with ASEAN implies an international nature to these disputes.
Instead of pursuing international arbitration, Beijing has opted for a more hardline approach to the South China Sea. In direct contravention of international law, China has asserted the right to regulate what ships can navigate and conduct research in its exclusive economic zone. In May of this year, Beijing ratcheted up its rhetoric , labeling the South China Sea as a ”core national interest”. Until then, the Chinese government had limited this phrase to basic matters of national interest, such as economic development and territorial sovereignty (code for Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang). The use of ”core interest” to describe the South China Sea signaled a new, aggressive phase in China’s approach.
The flexing of China’s naval muscles has supported this rhetoric. China has harassed foreign navies operating off its southern coast; the most publicized case to date is the USS Impeccable, which was swarmed and almost rammed by Chinese vessels. Such maritime confrontations, though usually unreported in the media, continue today. China’s navy has also conducted a series of exercises along its periphery, and just last month, conducted a major exercise within the South China Sea that involved mock long-range precision strike and attacks against enemy jet fighters.The world has taken notice of China’s increasingly aggressive behavior. Many will interpret this more hardline approach to the South China Sea as a leading indicator of a risen China’s future behavior. For decades, China’s backward economy and weak military meant that its attitude on international issues attracted little notice. But with China emerging as one of the world’s most influential nations, its position on the South China Sea – and other issues – is closely scrutinized. While most nations, including the United States, welcome the economic dimension of China’s rise, many increasingly question the purpose of China’s robust military modernization efforts. Add to this uncompromising rhetoric surrounding the South China Sea, and the use of military exercises as a thinly-veiled threat, and China’s rise appears less pacific than its mantra of “peaceful development” would indicate.
So what is to be done?
In recent months the Barack Obama administration has taken an important step by raising the South China Sea’s international profile. Public statements by high-level American officials call attention to Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea.
But this is only the first step.
The United States and its allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific need to coordinate to develop a common position on the South China Sea. This position should emphasize sustaining open access to an international body of water, an angle on the South China Sea that will not place nations in the awkward – and unwanted – position of choosing between the United States and China.
Privately, Washington and Asian capitals should convey to Beijing that they consider the South China Sea a leading indicator of how a risen China will behave on the world stage. American officials should unambiguously state that whether Beijing allows unhindered passage through the South China Sea and seeks to peacefully resolve territorial disputes there will go a long way toward determining the future shape of US policy toward China.
The United States and other like-minded Asia-Pacific nations should take additional steps to ratchet up the costs Beijing will incur if it seeks to extend sovereignty deep into the South China Sea. These steps include building up local naval capacity and expanding military cooperation. In particular, joint naval exercises with Vietnam should be gradually expanded. Over the long term, the United States must invest in its navy to ensure it retains a significant presence in the South China Sea for decades to come.Lastly, the US Senate should finally ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In the United States, ratification has the support of almost every national security leader and expert from both political parties. Because UNCLOS defines the illegality of China’s claims, remaining outside of the treaty weakens American efforts to establish a bulwark against Beijing’s ambitions.
We should not forget that Beijing views the South China Sea as a leading indicator of how the international community will respond to China’s growing power and assertiveness. An anemic international reaction will embolden China, not only in the South China Sea, but elsewhere as well. Insistence on open access to the South China Sea, if backed by US and regional action, will incline China to reassess its approach.
Abraham M Denmark is a fellow and Dr Daniel M Kliman is a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
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SPEAKING FREELY Rising China tests the watersBy Abraham M Denmark and Daniel M Kliman