China’s extensive land reclamation in the South China Sea poses a challenge to the security environment of the Asia-Pacific. Territorial conflicts are difficult to resolve given complex and deeply rooted sovereignty and historical interpretation issues. However, the essence of the issue is not the Chinese land reclamation itself (many other countries in the region have engaged in land reclamation), but rather the legal and political consequences that could escalate into a security issue, which in turn could destabilize a region that has the potential to drive the world economic growth.
No matter how much international criticism it receives, or how much organized opposition it faces in Southeast Asia, China is likely to continue to expand its physical presence in the region. Given the change in the strategic environment exemplified by the economic development of ASEAN nations, China’s growing clout, and the ambiguity of the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, regional stakeholders like the U.S., China, Japan, and South Korea must pursue a new and innovative approach to regional peace and stability.
A new approach would acknowledge China’s land reclamation under the condition of joint usage for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) operations by all stakeholders in the region. What to resolve is not the territorial conflict itself but the increasing mistrust of Chinese behavior, reflected in the use of coercion, intimidation, threats, or force. Allowing sovereignty claims to be debated peacefully is acceptable, but regional stability the stakeholders must discover a means to separate territory utilization from its ownership. This new perspective would involve China more deeply in regional peace and stability.
Numerous countries have engaged in land reclamation in the South China Sea, making islands, claiming sovereignty over them (international laws do not prohibit any state from undertaking reclamation in seas governed by United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), and then claiming rights over sea and airspace. In 1974, the Philippines constructed an airstrip on Thitu Island, which had been previously occupied by Taiwan. Vietnam built a harbor and other facilities after it took control of Southwest Cay from the Philippines in 1975, and Malaysia reclaimed land at Swallow Reef after occupying it in 1983. Despite these precedents, China has been singled out primarily due to the speed and scale of its land reclamation, which have prompted criticism and alarm from the international community.
Fundamentally, the Chinese approach to foreign policy is “reactive.” Chinese officials and academics claim that China is catching up with the Philippines and Vietnam in terms of land reclamation. They question the U.S. role and assert that it has no interest since it is not resident in the region. China occupies fewer than 10 disputed islands – about one-third those controlled by Vietnam. In fact, despite its economic size and military power, China was the only major Spratlys Islands claimant without an airstrip until its reclamation of Fiery Cross Island.
The government of Japan perceives China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea as an attempt to change the status quo by force or coercion, whereas China does not see its reclamation actions as destabilizing. Japan expects the U.S.-Japan security alliance to assure regional peace and stability, and eventually confront the Chinese over its reclamation activities.
Reframing a Regional Flashpoint
Given the sovereignty issues and rising nationalist sentiment, a complete resolution of the territorial conflicts is out of reach. The strategic interests of the U.S., Japan, and China collide in the South China Sea. China sees expansion into the maritime domain as a natural outcome of its rise to global power, while Japan is cautious about expansionist behavior spilling over into the East China Sea and the U.S. does not want to see China’s rise exacerbate regional rivalry and mistrust. Chinese leadership is very pragmatic and has great domestic political authority. Prolonged confrontation could escalate bipolarization or trigger limited armed conflict over land reclamation. This scenario serves the interests of none of the stakeholders, especially given deepening economic interdependence that the IMF reckons accounts for 19.4 percent of world GDP.
Rapid economic development has resulted in a growing concentration of business supply chains in the Asia-Pacific, a region highly susceptible to natural disaster. According to the EM-DAT international disaster database, Asia-Pacific nations have experienced an average of 100 natural disasters (typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and floods) annually over the last 10 years, causing an economic loss of at least $20 billion (sometimes exceeding $50 billion). The problem is worsened by a lack of disaster mitigation city planning, disaster mitigation social infrastructure, and HA/DR capabilities in regional armed forces. Poor disaster management has the potential to trigger political and economic unrest.
We therefore recommend using disputed territories as regional HA/DR operation hubs. These hubs could reduce tensions and the likelihood of conflicts escalating, while creating opportunities for multilateral cooperation and contributing to regional socio-economic resilience.
This approach would work as follows.
First, stakeholders would agree to accept the land reclamation in South China Sea with the condition of joint use of any landfill for multilateral HA/DR operations. The largest landfill established by China would serve as the hub for regional HA/DR operation in peacetime and emergency.
Second, stakeholders are welcome to construct facilities that enhance regional peace and stability, including airstrips and scientific research sites, utilizing project finance from regional institutions such as the Asia Development Bank and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
Third, stakeholders who possess physical facilities in disputed zones will hold regional HA/DR capacity building exercises in addition to goodwill exchanges of their armed forces including Coast Guards, as well as civil disaster management entities such as fire management and weather forecasting functions. They could collaborate with the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on each network operation system for disaster mitigation and multilateral coordination for swift recovery.
Fourth, access to the HA/DR site of any nation is exempt from any claim based on sovereignty. Stakeholders that claim sovereignty of an island will share co-ownership of the land and territorial air/waters, while keeping the port accessible to other stakeholders who do not claim sovereignty if they approach the site for HA/DR operations/exercises.
The initiative would create more opportunities for regional armed forces to interact with each other and respond to large-scale natural disasters, benefiting countries unable to build facilities on the islands.
Central to this idea is converting Chinese activity that appears to be changing the status quo by force or coercion into an opportunity to craft a new way to preserve regional peace and stability. China takes great care to protect its national “face.” Therefore, a new policy for the South China Sea should acknowledge China’s legitimate stakes in the region.
The regional power balance and its needs are changing. Most political leaders in the region have been unable to escape the legacy of the post-World War II order. This is shown in the attitudes of the U.S. and Japan toward the establishment of the AIIB.
In light of the changes sweeping across the Asia-Pacific, the key to avoiding conflict is to focus on how to utilize whatever the emerging power proposes (no matter how premature) and guide any suggestions toward a meaningful initiative to increase regional peace and stability. Allowing China to take a leadership role in establishing joint HA/DR hubs in disputed territories provides a face-saving off-ramp from the tense security atmosphere in the South China Sea and invests in a more stable future.
Mr. Takashi KAWAMOTO (JPN) is Senior Researcher, Keio Research Institute at SFC and Adjunct Fellow, Pacific Forum CSIS. Prior to his current position, he was Researcher/Adviser, Consulate General of Japan in Honolulu. He was previously in the Japanese Foreign Service, including the headquarters of MOFA (Tokyo) and the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations (New York City). Mr. Yizhe Daniel XIE (PRC) is a PhD candidate under the MEXT Scholarship at GSAPS, Waseda University in Tokyo. Prior to graduate school he worked with IBK Securities and Goldman Sachs in Seoul and Beijing after graduating from Korea University. His articles have been published widely within the region.