Why the South China Sea is not a
Image Credit: U.S. Navy (Flickr)

Why the South China Sea is not a "Sudetenland Moment"

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The rhetoric is growing hotter among China, most of its Southeast Asian neighbors, and the United States. Recently, the U.S. State Department took the unusual step of issuing a press statement that singled out Chinese behavior for criticism in creating a new administrative district covering most of the disputed islets in the South China Sea. Beijing’s media outlets have been responding with invective that is stoking already high emotions in the Chinese public. The issue of managing tensions and territorial claims that are inherently difficult to resolve has become more difficult, not less.

It was not apparently intended in Washington for the situation to deteriorate in this fashion. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out against unilateral actions in the South China Sea and for the development of an effective code of conduct to govern rivals’ activities in the area. This was widely understood to be a needed shove in China’s direction to quit stalling on agreeing to the code of conduct and to restrain the aggressive actions of its fishermen and oil drillers. It was accompanied by American professions of disinterest in the specific territorial disputes, but insistence on freedom of navigation in the heavily trafficked waters and peaceful resolution of the disputes under international law.

China did not like the American push then, at a time when Chinese diplomacy was scoring costly “own goals” in the East China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula. But by the end of 2010, China was trying harder to get along with its neighbors and Clinton’s warning seemed to have done well. More recently, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon made a trip to Beijing (and Tokyo) that was well received by Beijing’s highest leaders and seemed to put discussion of thorny issues on a high-policy plane. Coming right after his visit, the State Department statement must have arrived as a shock in Beijing.

The South China Sea presents complicated issues of evolving international law, historic but ill-defined claims, a rush to grab declining fish stocks, and competition to tap oil and gas reserves. Beijing’s much discussed “nine-dashed line,” that purports to give China a claim on about 80 percent of the South China Sea and its territories, used to be an eleven-dashed line. Two dashes separating Chinese and Vietnamese claims were resolved through bilateral negotiations years ago. This suggests that the remaining nine dashes are equally negotiable. But China rigidly refuses to clarify the basis for its claims, whether they are based on the accepted international law of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or the less widely accepted historical assertions. Beijing’s refusal to choose suggests it wants to maximize its legal and political leverage, even as the growth of its military and maritime assets gains physical leverage over its weaker neighbors.

Beijing is not alone. Hanoi has leased oil exploration blocks in contested waters, and Manila is trying the same. Their colonial occupations left a discontinuous record of historic claims, inclining them to rely more on UNCLOS to manage disputed resources. They eagerly encourage American weight thrown onto their side of the competition with China for free.

This is where the United States needs to move with caution and only after thinking many steps ahead. The overriding strategic objective of the United States in Asia is to manage China’s rise—which appears inevitable—in ways that do not diminish vital American interests in the region. Navigating the transition period peacefully requires strength and consistency as well as the recognition of changing realities. Severe tests of the Sino-American relationship are to be expected as the United States works to persuade China to accept the existing international rules and principles that have brought prolonged peace, stability, and prosperity to the participants, especially China.

China’s immediate neighbors are by definition weaker than the much larger People’s Republic. Beijing’s temptations to exploit that differential in power needs to be resisted with policies that reward positive behavior and raise the cost of negative behavior.

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