How to Turn The Heat Down in the South China Sea

An MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aircraft system from Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 35 performs ground turns aboard the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) in the South China Sea, May 1, 2015.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Conor Minto

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An MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aircraft system from Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 35 performs ground turns aboard the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) in the South China Sea, May 1, 2015.

These five concrete steps can keep tensions from becoming war — if the U.S. acts.

On April 5, Indonesia blew up 23 Malaysian and Vietnamese fishing vessels in a public display to deter others from illegally fishing in its waters. That was one day after Vietnamese state media announced that Vietnamese authorities detained a Chinese vessel accused of illegally entering Vietnamese waters. And that same week, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel forcefully freed a Chinese fishing vessel from Indonesian authorities that had detained the vessel.

This is the new normal in the South China Sea.

While this strategic patch of ocean has long seen international maritime incidents – even deadly ones –  the pace has climbed rapidly in recent years. 

Tensions have risen as China has taken more frequent and provocative steps to assert its authority over claimed waters, and its regional neighbors have begun to push back. In 2014, China deployed a massive oil rig in disputed waters with Vietnam, leading to clashes between vessels. Between 2013 and 2015, China dredged enough sand from the bottom of the South China Sea to build more than 2,900 acres of new land, on which it appears to be constructing bases. And ships from China and the Philippines have squared off near Scarborough Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, and elsewhere.

The incidents between claimant countries are occurring alongside an emerging U.S.-China confrontation in the South China Sea, with vessels from both countries increasingly challenging one another, as illustrated by journalist Helene Cooper on her recent voyage.

Read more: The Right Way to Enforce Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea

See also: China is Cruising for a Bruising

As the pace of incidents climbs, so too does the possibility of unintended escalation. With long-term solutions to sovereignty claims and resource disputes nowhere on the horizon, the countries of the region need to find a way to lower tensions now.

To do so, the United States must push China and the other claimant countries—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam—to create an incident prevention system in the South China Sea.

First, the countries should build a communal maritime domain awareness system to provide transparency of ship movements. Information sharing among various countries and non-governmental entities could provide the necessary data, and the system could be monitored at a physical center attended by representatives from all claimant countries. The new information hub might even be built on an existing mechanism such as Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre or the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance.

Second, countries must take the very difficult step of living up to their commitments not to respond to incursions into perceived sovereign waters with force, but instead only with diplomacy. While the parties have already signed up to this in principle in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, the new hub would help make this work by providing an opportunity for the relevant countries to monitor and respond to each incident in real time and to immediately negotiate de-escalation.

Third, the countries must agree to apply the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea to all vessels. The CUES, a 2014 agreement whose 21 signatories include all the relevant South China Sea parties, establishes guidelines for preventing incidents between navies and avoiding escalation when incidents occur. It’s a step forward that would go much further if applied to the more incident-prone Coast Guard and fishing vessels.

Fourth, the countries must construct a mechanism for adjudicating these incidents, for deciding how to proceed once an incident has occurred. Most effective would be a new mechanism comprised of and administered by representatives from the five claimant countries. The mechanism might be based at the maritime domain awareness hub, where real-time information could allow much quicker decisions to determine a way forward.

To make the above arrangements possible, China will need to be convinced that it is in its interests to lower tensions. That is where the United States comes in. Washington must provide Beijing (and vice versa) with a much more frank understanding about its security posture in the South China Sea. The U.S. must make clear that it will take steps to protect its interests in the area, including by strengthening its defense posture. 

The U.S. should also boost funding for maritime domain awareness in Southeast Asia by expanding the Foreign Military Financing programs with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. As China’s capabilities grow, these countries need greater awareness of what is happening in their Exclusive Economic Zones.

Of course, none of these are easy steps. But as the tensions rise, governments will increasingly look for ways to compromise in order to safeguard peace and stability. An incident prevention system is a necessary first step, and no progress will be made without the United States. 

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