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

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.

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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.

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