America and the South China Sea Challenge

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The rough waters that roiled the South China Sea in 2012 are not giving way to smooth sailing in 2013.

Despite a springtime push for diplomatic progress, present conditions point to the likelihood of protracted, simmering confrontation throughout this year and well beyond. The search for new momentum on both general stability and specific initiatives such as a Code of Conduct is likely to founder on enduring obstacles. Those impediments include overlapping territorial claims, rising nationalist passions across the region, ongoing military modernization, an increasingly assertive and capable China helmed by a new leadership touting nationalist revival as its central message, weak regional institutions, and disregard for international maritime law.

As China fends off multilateral pressure and pushes to establish its growing quest for maritime rights, using naval flotillas, white-hulled coastal defense ships, fishery vessels, and even cruise ships to sail into contested waters throughout the South China Sea, Beijing is also striving to solidify the principle that only claimant states may deal with disputes. 

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Meanwhile, such developments are directly undermining the United States’ strategic goals in the region, to include the peaceful resolution of disputes, unfettered freedom of navigation (including for the U.S. Navy, which has kept the peace in maritime Asia for 70 years), open sea lines of communication (SLOCs), and the construction of an open, rules-based system for governance of these crucial global commons.

Because diplomacy is not likely to be a sufficient means of quelling tensions in the South China Sea, the United States needs to consider what else it can do to preserve the peace and promote further regional prosperity.  The United States must take concrete steps to raise the capacity of allies and partners to defend against coercion and aggression, enhance the credibility of international maritime law, strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) power to generate consensus on common interests, and organize confidence-building measures between allies, partners, and China alike, so as to reduce the likelihood of accidents or miscalculations spiraling into needless conflict.

China’s increasingly assertive behavior in pressing sovereignty claims indicates a growing reliance on coercion in its neighborhood. The spillover of the “Scarborough Reef model,” i.e. concerted maritime harassment backed up by the threat of naval assets, into the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute with Japan indicates that this physical but non-kinetic brinksmanship has become strategic policy in Beijing. In the past year, China has taken rhetorical and concrete steps indicating its uncompromising resolve on what it calls its “indisputable sovereignty” of nearly all of the South China Sea. Moreover, the new leadership under Xi Jinping has upped nationalist rhetoric across the board, touting the “Chinese dream” of nationalist revival as its central domestic message and directing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to enhance its abilities. It was unsurprising, if still troubling, when in the week following Xi’s inauguration as State President, the PLA Navy put on a show of force in the South China Sea, sending two guided missile frigates and a guided missile destroyer to the southernmost point of China’s territorial claim, to conduct training exercises that reportedly included amphibious landings and combined action with land-based air assets. China’s new White Paper makes the clearest call to date for China to become a great maritime military power.

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