United States Must Contest Chinese South China Sea Actions
The scheduled meeting between China’s Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump, at Mara-Lago resort in Florida, offers a measured opportunity to redirect a Washington policy of upholding international law in the contested South China Sea. The conversation between the two leaders sets the stage for a US-China framework to navigate a steady course for stability, including: insuring that America’s interests remain unthreatened; maintaining freedom of the seas; tapping down further militarization outposts; and safeguarding the marine environment in the region.
American interests are transparent to policy shapers inside Washington’s beltway but the Trump administration is still testing the swiftly changing diplomatic waters. To be clear, the Trump administration has already berated China over its trade imbalance, its military activities and its ties to North Korea.
Despite since last year’s Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling upholding Philippine allegations that China unlawfully restricted access to fisherman in the Scarborough Shoal and the rejection of Chinese broader territorial claims within the ‘nine-dash line’ that envelops most of the South China Sea, Beijing continued building runways and military outposts in defiance of international law.
A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies analyzing satellite photos concluded that runways, aircraft hangers, radar sites and hardened surface-to-air missile shelters have either been finished or are nearing completion.
The U.S. has gone record that it does not take an official position on South China Sea disputes, but has steadily criticized China’s behavior there and plans to expand defense alliances with countries that have overlapping claims. Newly confirmed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that China’s island building in the South China Sea was an illegal seizure of disputed areas without regard for international norms and must be stopped.
The South China Sea’s strategic importance is hard to estimate. The critical sea-lanes offer passage to more than 45,000 ships –over half the world’s shipping tonnage-sail through the turbulent sea annually. More than 80 percent of oil for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan flows through the region. Cargo ships carry an estimated $5 trillion worth of goods through the waterway annually.
The tribunal’s ruling stipulated that China was in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Yet, Beijing has continued to damage coral reefs with additional reclamations on the seven reefs in the Spratly Islands.
While the Trump administration denies climate change, it cannot afford to turn away from the environmental damages caused by China’s continued dredging. The science is clear. There’s agreement among marine scientists that coral reef destruction results in long-standing damage to the marine environment. Additionally, the human security element poses a potential food security for more than 500 million people who depend upon access to ancestral fishing grounds for more than 25 percent of the daily protein.
“Territorial disputes have led to the establishment of environmentally destructive, socially and economically costly military outposts on many of the islands” claims marine biologist and researcher John McManus. He recognizes that the most important resource in these heavily fished waters is the larvae of fish and invertebrates.
With the geopolitical intractability of the region’s sovereignty claims, it may serve America’s diplomacy efforts to engage China along the shared lines of ASEAN’s recognition that the region faces enormous challenges to sustainability in coastal and shared ocean regions.
After all, the claimant South China Sea nations are to a large degree interdependent when it comes to questions of the human environment. “They are interdependent if they fail to find common solutions to environmental problems that may end up in violent conflict against each other. In general, environmental interdependence is both a source of conflict and a potential for international integration,” claims Karin Dokken, a political scientist at the University of Oslo.
The US and China must both recognize that without agreement on these environmental problems, there’s a bleak future for the sea. Nearly 80 percent of the SCS’s coral reefs have been degraded and are under serious threat in places from sediment, overfishing, destructive fishing practices, pollution and climate change.
Fishermen find themselves on the front lines of this new ecological battle since they are sent by their governments to find food for their people. The maritime disputes between China and it neighbors, especially Vietnam, are being fought by these fishing sentinels and their trawlers. These fishers are also the first and last to recognize the implications of mismanaged environmental and fishing policies.
With President Trump’s new approach of “peace through strength” in military policy, Washington needs to act purposefully during this big agenda conversation. It’s time for the U.S. to display leadership through confidence-building measures, and to red flag China’s nefarious marine practices. America does not intend to back away from its Asia Pacific interests and treaty agreements. Here are select recommendations:
• Defend U.S. Navy freedom of the sea operation, especially the routine patrol of South China Sea by U.S carrier groups. Reaffirm America’s defense treaty alliances in the Asia Pacific region.
Territorial issues should be resolved peacefully, without coercion, intimidation, threats, or the use of force.
All parties must uphold international law. Strengthen maritime domain awareness with regional coast guard cooperation.
U.S. military surveillance flights in international airspace are lawful under international law.
Respect and protect biodiversity and the environment.
Ships and aircraft assigned to Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 11 operate in formation in the South China Sea. The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is conducting operations in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David Mercil/Released)