Asia-Pacific | January 11, 2013 at 11:43 am

The South China Sea: Flashpoints and the U.S. Pivot

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Claims and Concerns

The South China Sea has long been a flashpoint for regional rivalries and tensions. Subject to a range of competing territorial claims—including from Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan, the South China Sea is at the nexus of competing and converging interests. Through these contested waters flows over one-third of world trade, and within it lies a plethora of natural resources—including oil, natural gas, and fishing reserves. Here too, a seemingly inane but critical distinction for the claimants has been the difference between a “rock” and an “island,” the latter of which must be able to support human habitation. This is a concept subject to contention, as various tenuous outposts have been established, often overlying reefs that would otherwise be submerged. While a rock only commands a 12 nautical mile expanse of territorial waters, an island may be the basis for a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that grants rights over the resources within. Recent developments—including an estimate by the Chinese oil company CNOOC that the disputed areas could contain up to 17 billion tons of oil as well as 498 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—have raised the stakes.

Beyond the relevant regional players, the United States too has much at stake. At the July 2010 meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Vietnam, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton articulated the United States’ “national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” As the U.S. now ‘pivots’ to the Pacific, it has sought a more active role in this dispute. This past July, at an ASEAN forum in Cambodia, following “intense” and inconclusive discussions on the South China Sea, Clinton warned, “None of us can fail to be concerned by the increase in tensions, the uptick in confrontational rhetoric and disagreements over resource exploitation.” The trajectory of this longstanding dispute may prove to be a test for the development and potential stability of the region.

 

Equilibrium and Interdependence?

One paradox at the heart of the South China Sea is the uneasy equilibrium that has largely been maintained. Despite the occasional confrontation and frequent diplomatic squabbling, the situation has never escalated into full-blown physical conflict. The main stabilizing factor has been that the countries involved have too much to lose form turmoil, and so much to gain from tranquility. Andrew Ring—former Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Fellow—emphasized that “With respect to the South China Sea, we all have the same goals” in terms of regional stability and development. With regional trade flows and interdependence critical to the region’s growing economies, conflict could be devastating. Even for China—the actor with by far the most to gain from such a dispute—taking unilateral action would irreparably tarnish its image in the eyes of the international community. With the predominant narrative of a “rising” and “assertive China”—referred to as a potential adversary by President Obama in the third presidential debate—China’s behavior in the South China Sea may be sometimes exaggerated or sensationalized. Dr. Auer, former Naval officer and currently Director of the Center for U.S.-Japan Studies and Cooperation at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies, told the HPR that “China has not indicated any willingness to negotiate multilaterally” and remains “very uncooperative.” Across its maritime territorial disputes—particularly through recent tensions with Japan in the East China Sea—Auer sees China as having taken a very aggressive stance, and he claims that “Chinese behavior is not understandable or clear.”

Nonetheless, in recent incidents, such as a standoff between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal this past April, as Bonnie Glaser, Senior Adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, emphasized, “this is not an either or.” Multiple parties are responsible for the tensions, yet the cycle of action and reaction is often obscured. Nonetheless, Glaser believes that “The Chinese have in every one of these cases overreacted—they have sought to take advantage of the missteps of other countries,” responding with disproportionate coercion. In addition, China has begun to use methods of “economic coercion” to assert its interests against trade partners.

 

A Tipping Point?

Has the dynamic in the South China Sea shifted recently? Perhaps not in a fundamental sense. But with the regional military buildup, governments have developed a greater capacity to pursue longstanding objectives. According to Peter Dutton, Director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College,  “China’s recent behavior in the East China Sea and assertive policy in the South China Sea” is “a serious concern.” He believes that China’s willingness to resort to force in defense of its territorial claims has been increasing over time, partially as a consequence of its rising power. As such, Dutton sees the situation as reaching a “tipping point in which China is…no longer satisfied with shelving the dispute.” Is confrontation or resolution imminent? Worryingly, Dutton observes, “the international dynamic in the region is motivated largely by fear and anger.” However, the use of unilateral military force would be a lose-lose for China,” particularly in terms of its credibility, both among its neighbors and in the international community.

 

The Pivot in the South China Sea

From a U.S. perspective, a sustained American presence in the region has long been the underpinning of peace and stability. However, excessive U.S. intervention could disrupt the delicate balance that has been established. Although the U.S. has always sought to maintain a position of neutrality in territorial disputes, remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that referred to the South China Sea as the “West Philippine Sea” led China to challenge U.S. impartiality. If the U.S. engages with its regional allies without seeking enhanced engagement with China, then U.S. actions in the region may be perceived by China as efforts at containment. Moreover, as the U.S. strengthens ties to partners in the region, there is risk of entanglement if conflict were to break out.

There has long been an undercurrent of tension between the Philippines and China—most recently displayed in the standoff over the Scarborough Shoal in May 2012. Shortly thereafter, in a visit to Washington D.C., President Aquino sought U.S. commitment to military support of the Philippines in the event of conflict with China on the basis of the 1952 Mutual Defense Treaty. However, despite providing further military and naval support, the U.S. has refrained from making concrete commitments. Although the U.S. would not necessarily be dragged into a dispute, if a confrontation did break out, it might feel compelled to respond militarily to maintain the credibility of commitments to allies and partners in the region. Strong ties to the U.S. and enhanced military capacity could also provoke more confrontational behavior from U.S. partners. Yet, Ring emphasizes that the U.S. navy and military are also unique in the “ability to facilitate military cooperation and communication among all of the claimants” and particularly to “be that bridge…uniquely situated to build some flows of communication” that could facilitate a peaceful resolution to future incidents.

 

Long-term Options

Beyond these tensions and speculations, one must also consider the long-term prospects of a viable solution. Speaking on the record at a Weatherhead Center seminar at Harvard, Michael Dukakis raised the question, “Why isn’t the United States urging that these disputes be resolved in the International Court of Justice? Isn’t that what it’s for?” However, in addition to U.S. ambivalence, China and other main players would also oppose such a step. Traditionally, in cases of territorial disputes, the ICJ has tended to privilege longstanding administrative presence. China’s claims to over 80 percent of the South China Sea, on the other hand, have been framed in terms of a historical narrative—expressed in the “nine-dashed line” first drawn on a map in 1947 by the Kuomintang government then exiled to Taiwan—rather than the rules and norms established through UNCLOS. According to Dutton, “China is abrogating these principles [of international law]…and pursuing its own version of history in the region [with] frankly coercive policies in order to press its neighbors.”

In the adjudication of this patchwork of competing claims, ASEAN has long played a mediating role, as through its issuance of a “Declaration of Conduct” in 2002. According to Ring, “ASEAN is the key” to resolving this dispute and “one of the few organizations that has the pedigree” to serve as a legitimate mediator, with its foundational norms of respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, and freedom from external intervention. However, ASEAN, which relies on full consensus, is unlikely to move quickly. The next chairs of the bloc—Brunei as of 2013—are unlikely to press this issue. Moreover, China has tended to resist settlement of the territorial disputes in a multilateral forum and instead has sought direct bilateral negotiations, which would maximize its relative leverage.

Although a long-term solution and the protracted process of redrawing the map could take years yet, with mounting economic pressures and a voracious appetite for natural resources, economic factors may induce the establishment of some sort of profit-sharing mechanism in the short-term. For instance, Taiwan suggested in the 1990s that a joint development company for the South China Sea be established.

 

Looking to the Future

The South China Sea will likely remain a focal point of tension for years to come. China’s increased naval power may make a more assertive stance natural and inevitable. In this environment, Glaser sees that “the U.S. is more welcome in the region today than it has ever been.” The United States must find a balance between accepting this welcome and not overreaching—maintaining a stabilizing presence without provoking further suspicion from China or arousing concerns among regional partners. All in all, the South China Sea may prove to be a test, not only of whether China will be a “responsible stakeholder” in its own neighborhood but also of American strategy as it relates to a rising China.

Image credit: journal.georgetown.edu

 

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