Straight Talk on the South China Sea

US President Barack, ... ]
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US President Barack, ... ]

If the U.S. really cares about China’s territorial claims, now is the time to say it. By Vikram Singh and Ely Ratner

Editor’s Note: As President Obama returns to China, we asked a few national security leaders to weigh in on what you need to know, as they see it from their different perspectives in Congress, policy-making, the military and abroad. China seems to be front-page news only when conflict strikes (See: Ebola, Russia, ISIL). While there is little agreement as to whether China will be a threat or partner to any future security architectures, there is wide agreement the U.S. needs to do more to shape that future.

President Obama’s second daylong summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping will be the best chance this year to clarify some fuzzy lines on Asia’s biggest potential flash point: the South China Sea. This is the time to further clarify U.S. interests, including whether the United States cares about possible outcomes to the region’s many territorial disputes.

China is extremely clear about its interests in this region: It seeks to administer most of the South China Sea within an expansive “nine-dash line” that snakes along the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines. Along with claims to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands with Japan, China includes these territorial ambitions among other “core interests” like Tibet or Taiwan, making compromise very difficult.

To bolster its claims, China is building airstrips and entire new islands, in addition to a litany of other moves seen as destabilizing by neighboring claimants. These rival states are taking similar steps in a tense undeclared conflict over the rocks, shoals, fisheries and mineral rights of this resource-rich area. But China outmatches all of its neighbors in terms of power, and its assertiveness – from moving a billion dollar oil rig with an armada of ships into waters claimed by Vietnam to a Hollywood-style barrel roll by a Chinese fighter jet over a U.S. Navy surveillance plane in international waters in August – has gone from largely reactive and uncoordinated to more deliberate and centralized.

By contrast, the United States has no claims to defend and does not take a position on the sovereignty of the islands or their surrounding waters. So U.S. officials have sought to be evenhanded in articulating America’s principles-based interests: the maintenance of peace and stability, the freedom of navigation, the free flow of commerce and the peaceful settlement of disputes.  This U.S. position, adopted in 2010 in the wake of notable acts of Chinese pressure and coercion, garnered regional support by showing that the United States would focus on curbing bad behavior, regardless of the perpetrator. It was the perfect recipe for a region in which countries dread conflict between Washington and Beijing.  But it also threatened to leave the misimpression that the United States is indifferent to the outcome of territorial disputes so long as they are settled without war. This is simply not true.

As President Obama reiterates the interests listed above, he might also consider adding the following:

First, it is contrary to U.S. interests to have any one power dominate the South China Sea. In a region with overlapping claims and conflicting interests, collaborative management is the only path to long-term stability. Dominance by one nation would be endlessly contested, with others hedging against possible threats to freedom of navigation and access, instead of the region cooperating on common goals like stewardship of natural resources and the protection of international shipping.

Second, how disputes are settled matters to Washington and will affect U.S.–China ties. The United States should make clear that the use of coercion and pressure – as China has exacted on Japan and the Philippines – might affect other areas of the U.S.–China relationship, possibly to include trade and investment. Washington has not yet linked pressure by Beijing on neighbors to other areas of bilateral cooperation, leaving Chinese leaders to believe that even bullying neighbors will not stop positive cooperation with the United States other areas. President Obama can make that less certain.

Third, propose a management structure to avoid the kinds of accidents at sea or in the air that could escalate into a bilateral crisis. Repeated dangerous moves by the People’s Liberation Army Navy and Air Force to enforce China’s sovereignty claims in international waters have already tempted a major incident. The United States and China may have differing interpretations of what behaviors are acceptable under international law, but this cannot prevent the sides from adopting a more robust mechanism for avoiding and managing crises.

Finally, the United States should pursue deeper engagement with China on U.S. alliances and partnerships in Asia. China consistently claims that U.S. alliances are outdated and aimed at containing China.  And China’s regional diplomacy and assertiveness have aimed to undermine America’s security ties, which remain vital to U.S. power and leadership in Asia. The United States believes the entire region, including China, benefits from the extension of a U.S. security umbrella to regional states, not least because it helps prevent arms racing that could include the proliferation of nuclear weapons, among other destabilizing capabilities.  Establishing mechanisms for consultation between China and the U.S. with its allies could help manage tensions. For instance, a recent U.S.-China-Australia trilateral military exercise was a good start and should be replicated with other regional partners.

American citizens and U.S. leaders pay more attention to the Islamic State, Ebola, Russian aggression in Ukraine, negotiations to end Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and other national security issues than to the South China Sea. But with about half of global shipping passing through waters disputed by a half-dozen nations, crises and conflict there would be terribly disruptive to the global economy and could bring major powers to blows. This matters a great deal to the security and prosperity of the American people, something President Obama can more clearly explain to Xi Jinping this week.

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