America and the South China Sea Challenge

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America and the South China Sea Challenge

America must make hard choices and put forth the effort necessary to ensure that the S. China Sea remains peaceful in 2013 and beyond.

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. 

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.

Other countries in the region, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, have voiced displeasure and alarm at China’s assertiveness. The official publication of Chinese maps provoked popular and government protest in both countries; Chinese fruit was left to rot on the docks in Vietnam. Meanwhile, both of these countries are investing in greater naval capabilities to defend their interests against the power of a rising China. As part of its ongoing naval modernization, Vietnam will take delivery in 2013 on the first of six Kilo-class diesel attack submarines from Russia. It has looked to newfound friend India for training in undersea operations. While the Philippines has its security treaty with the United States as an important backstop, they too have made noise about acquiring submarines in recent years. All in all, the increasing quantity and sophistication of naval assets—not to mention increasingly militarized maritime surveillance fleets—mean that the South China Sea is about to become a very crowded place. Even discounting the possibility of deliberate provocations, it may be very difficult to control tensions in the case of accident, miscalculation, or provocations by rogue commanders (such as the recent incident in which a Chinese vessel fired flares at a Vietnamese fishing boat, allegedly setting it on fire).

Mechanisms intended to restrain conflict appear to be weakening where the South China Sea is concerned. In 2012, for the first time in its history, ASEAN failed to produce a joint communiqué following its yearly summit, due to Chinese pressure on Cambodia, last year’s chair, to forbid inclusion of any language on South China Sea disputes in the document. Having taken ten years to negotiate the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that was signed by China and member countries in 2002, ASEAN has yet to produce a binding Code of Conduct, and prospects may be dim for the next several years. However, this does not mean that China will not engage in creative diplomacy to present the impression of progress.

Nor has international law been able to resolve the region’s issues, at least for the moment. When in January the Philippines submitted its sovereignty disputes with China to the United Nations for adjudication under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both countries are signatories, China summarily rejected the appeal and has repeatedly refused to participate in the process.

What should the United States do in the face of these dispiriting trends? How can it exercise its leadership to shape the regional trajectory in the direction of peace undergirded by an open, rules-based system that focuses on common interests? Any strategy must include comprehensive engagement across the military, political/diplomatic, and economic realms.

Militarily, the United States should take the following steps:

Raise the capacity of allies and partners to provide a minimum credible defense against aggression. America recognizes China’s right to defend its borders, but China should recognize the rights of its neighbors to build what China calls ‘counter-intervention forces’ of its own.  U.S. efforts should focus on low-end, defensive capabilities, including maritime security that falls below the military threshold. The U.S. can provide particular advantages in the realm of maritime domain awareness (MDA) or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard should provide training to partner militaries and maritime services that can mitigate the risk of accidents or miscalculations. It will be especially important to emphasize safe operation of submarines, especially given the inexperience of countries like Vietnam in undersea operations.

–  Organize and promote confidence-building measures between relevant militaries. Combined training, especially in low-intensity operations addressed to common interests like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) and counter-piracy operations.

Include China in regional military efforts. China’s acceptance of the U.S. offer to participate in RIMPAC 2014 is an encouraging sign. Engagements that facilitate the creation of personal relationships can mitigate institutional mistrust among militaries and provide important release valves during tensions.

Military diplomacy must be complemented by diplomatic engagement that supports transparency and rules-based conflict resolution in line with American values. Diplomatic and political priorities should include:

Revamped efforts to ratify UNCLOS. Conservative objections to Senate ratification of UNCLOS focus on enabling (and financing) a faceless international bureaucracy that could impinge upon U.S. sovereignty. While such concerns may be warranted, America cannot credibly act as a leader on freedom of navigation if it does not sign on to the same international vehicle enshrining those principles as every other country in the region.  UNCLOS won’t solve South China Sea disputes, but pushing to advance internationally agreed upon maritime law can help.  While the U.S. already abides by UNCLOS’ terms, symbolism is important here.

Continued support for the Philippines’ bid for arbitration of its disputes as an important regional precedent. Secretary Kerry has already expressed America’s full support for this effort at peaceful resolution. However, the U.S. must realize that its support is not about controlling outcomes (it is, after all, not a claimant state), but about supporting a process that obviates coercion and conflict.  Although Vietnam thinks its experience in dealing with China calls for quiet diplomacy with Beijing, it and other ASEAN members have a cardinal interest in supporting international law and ASEAN unity.

Strengthening ASEAN’s central leadership role in determining the South China Sea’s fate, and pressing for a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. A crucial part of the U.S. rebalance to Asia has been its accession to the East Asia Summit and other regional forums convened by ASEAN. The U.S. should continue working in those venues while increasing bilateral engagement with member states that can increase ASEAN’s cohesion in working toward a binding Code of Conduct with China. In the very near term, the U.S. must keep deepening its relationship with 2013’s chair, Brunei Darussalam, especially considering the recent overtures Beijing has made to the sultanate. ASEAN cannot afford a repeat of Phnom Penh, where Chinese pressure on a weak chair scuttled efforts to address the South China Sea through ASEAN.  It is encouraging that Brunei has made it clear each ASEAN member has a right to discuss maritime security at upcoming forums. 

Deepen the comprehensive partnership with Indonesia in particular, and promote its role as a regional stakeholder. Democratic Indonesia is already an important voice in ASEAN and the region at large, and has been a comprehensive partner of the United States since 2008. As a non-claimant in the South China Sea, Indonesia can act as a credible mediator of competing interests, as it did following the Phnom Penh debacle.

Finally, any regional strategy must incorporate economic engagement, reflecting the continued importance East Asian countries place on growth and increasing prosperity. Key economic initiatives should include:

Completing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations this year. With the support of the new Abe government in Japan, TPP has a real shot at making serious progress over the next year or so.  Concluding initial negotiations on TPP would demonstrate the American determination and commitment to advance regional prosperity through open and rules-based trade, the region’s main shared interest.  It would also, over time, create more connectivity between and among the U.S. and most of the South China Sea claimants, taking pressure off military issues.

Balance development disparities within ASEAN. The U.S. should use economic initiatives such as the U.S.-ASEAN Enhanced Economic Engagement (E3) program announced last fall, as well as the Lower Mekong Initiative, to build economic capacity in countries like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Bringing these countries closer to the standards set by more advanced ASEAN economies such as Singapore and Indonesia will help ASEAN stay on track to hit its goal of instituting an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015. Achieving that pledge will allow ASEAN to preserve a relatively cohesive voice on regional issues and avoid fracturing.

As Asia assumes its role as the engine of global economic growth, the risk to the entire world of destabilizing conflict increases daily, and nowhere will that risk be greater in the next ten years than in the South China Sea. As a leading power in Asia, the United States must make the hard choices and put forth the concerted effort necessary to ensure that the South China Sea remains peaceful in 2013 and beyond, and to construct durable institutions to address further disputes.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).  Alexander Sullivan is a Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Research Intern in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS.