The South China Sea: As­sess­ing U.S. Pol­icy and Op­tions For the Fu­ture

The Diplomatic Insight - - Contents - Highly emo­tional ter­ri­to­rial claims in a re­gion of ris­ing na­tion­al­ism. could es­ca­late. rich re­sources. Risks to fr

The South China Sea ten­sions stem from the seem­ingly in­tractable over­lap­ping sovereignty claims to land fea­tures and as­so­ci­ated wa­ter en­ti­tle­ments in the South China Sea. Th­ese prob­lems are not new; as the China Sea dis­putes was made in 1995. To­day’s pol­icy is vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal. What is dif­fer­ent is that af­ter al­most a decade and a half of rel­a­tive tran­quil­ity, the South China Sea has emerged as a cock­pit of con­tention that raises the in­sta­bil­ity in South­east Asia. The United States could be­come di­rectly in­volved, be­cause the Philip­pines, one of the con­tend­ing claimants to land fea­tures in the South China Sea, is a U.S. treaty ally. The South China Sea dis­putes in­volve the in­ter­ests of the United States, par­tic­u­larly with re­gard to free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion, in­ter­na­tional norms and law, re­la­tions with im­por­tant part­ners and al­lies, and the ex­pec­ta­tion of the peace­ful res­o­lu­tion of dis­putes. China’s ris­ing power and ca­pa­bil­i­ties make PRC ac­tions more con­se­quen­tial and un­set­tling than those of oth­ers, so they de­serve par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion but need to be eval­u­ated in the broader con­text of the mo­tives and ac­tions of oth­ers as well. Amer­i­can poli­cies have con­trib­uted might­ily to en­abling Asia to be­come an en­gine of both global and Amer­i­can growth for the last 35 years. The Amer­i­can se­cu­rity pres­ence and as­so­ci­ated ac­tions have re­duced the pe­riod, fa­cil­i­tat­ing Asia’s eco­nomic emer­gence. Un­for­tu­nately, mar­itime ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea in­creas­ingly threaten th­ese crit­i­cal U.S. in­ter­ests. This re­gional sit­u­a­tion is un­fold­ing in the larger con­text of the rise of China and its grow­ing ac­tivism re­gard­ing re­gional and global is­sues and in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing more vig­or­ously as­sert­ing While ex­pan­sion of China’s in­ter­ests it is inevitably un­set­tling to many Amer­i­cans and Asians, par­tic­u­larly when it in­volves em­ploy­ment of mil­i­tary and quasi-mil­i­tary as­sets. China’s greater global ac­tivism also makes more salient the re­al­ity that al­most all of the core chal­lenges of this era—such as ter­ror­ism, nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion, cy­ber se­cu­rity, op­po­si­tion to trade and in­vest­ment lib­er­al­iza­tion, cli­mate change, and epi­demics—are more man­age­able when the United States and China can co­op­er­ate or act along par­al­lel lines and far less tractable when the two coun­tries see their in­ter­ests as at cross pur­poses. The grow­ing U.S.-China dis­trust over both coun­tries’ re­spec­tive po­si­tions in East China Sea and the South China Sea risks cre­at­ing an im­pact on over­all U.S.-China re­la­tions that can have mer­its of the dis­putes them­selves. Wrongly, Bei­jing is con­vinced that the un­der­ly­ing U.S. strat­egy to en­cour­age oth­ers, es­pe­cially Ja­pan, Viet­nam, and the Philip­pines, to push the en­ve­lope in the hopes the Chi­nese re­sponses will lead those coun­tries—and ASEAN—to be­come more united and de­pen­dent on the United States. At the same time, China’s in­creas­ingly bul­ly­ing ap­proach to its mar­itime ter­ri­to­rial claims has in­creased the grow­ing ranks and China’s “peace­ful rise” is a mi­rage and that in­tense com­pe­ti­tion, if not out­right While the East and South China Sea dis­putes share cer­tain sim­i­lar­i­ties, they are quite dif­fer­ent in im­por­tant re­spects. The East China Sea ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute in­volves only two claimants, China and Ja­pan, re­volves pri­mar­ily around one small set of un­in­hab­ited is­lands claimed by both, and is closely in­ter­twined with in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the U.S.-Ja­pan Mu­tual Se­cu­rity Treaty. The South China Sea dis­putes con­cern a vast area of ocean, in­hab­ited and un­in­hab­ited is­lands, more com­plex ri­val­ries and claims to land and re­sources, a more pro­nounced chal­lenge to in­ter­na­tional law, and a greater im­bal­ance in power among the claimants. This ar­ti­cle ad­dresses only the South China Sea dis­putes. The South China Sea dis­putes pit the Philip­pines, Viet­nam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Tai­wan (many of which have mar­itime ter­ri­to­rial claims that also over­lap with each other)—and in­volve: Dis­putes over the in­ter­pre­ta­tion and ap­pli­ca­bil­ity of in­ter­na­tional law, no­tably the UN Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). And they in­volve the in­ter­ests of the United States, par­tic­u­larly with re­gard to free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion, in­ter­na­tional norms and law, re­la­tions with im­por­tant part­ners and al­lies, and the ex­pec­ta­tion of the peace­ful res­o­lu­tion of dis­putes.

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