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America and the South China Sea Challenge (Page 2 of 3)

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.

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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.

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