Cold War in the South China Sea

In February, President Barack Obama hosted a summit for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at Rancho Mirage, California, as part of his effort to rebalance US foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific. ASEAN, a group of governments that includes democracies, communist states and absolute monarchs and which was formed “to promote political and economic cooperation and regional stability,” met to discuss important issues such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and North Korea’s nuclear program. However, one of the most important topics discussed was the series of disputes in the South China Sea. As these territorial disputes become increasingly tense, the US must learn to intervene more proactively to prevent escalation, while ensuring its allies in the region feel safe.

The South China Sea has been a hotspot for territorial disputes. Two island chains — the Paracels and the Spratlys — as well as dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks, and reefs, collectively known as the Scarborough Shoal, have been a major source of tension between China and several neighboring states, since all of these countries have overlapping claims to the area. Why all this quarreling over a few barren rocks? The area is projected by the US Energy and Information Administration to contain over 11 billion barrels of oil and mineral reserves. Control of the islands would mean access to these reserves, as well as the ability to regulate shipping routes in an area through which at least $5 trillion of commercial goods pass each year, of which the US owns more than 20 percent.

Of all the potential claimants, China has been the most assertive and controversial in its activities, having built seven artificial islands since 2014. The country is also building an additional runway in Mischief Reef, the largest land mass of Spratly islands. To date, China has constructed military bases and artificial islands way beyond its maritime borders. In total, 2900 acres of land have been claimed by the Chinese government, a claim which many other countries in the region believe is in violation of  the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), according to which nations can only have access to marine resources such as fisheries, oil, and gas up to 200 nautical miles from their shores in what is known as the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

As with many major disputes around the Middle East or Asia-Pacific, the US continues to play a big brother role in trying to keep the region in order. However, US interests do not just stop at keeping political forces accountable for their actions and upholding international law. The management of free and secure trade is crucial in generating trust between nations in the South China Sea, many of which, including Vietnam and the Philippines, view US military presence on their bases as a bulwark against intimidation by China. However, an excessive commitment to protecting these smaller nations can jeopardize the US relations with with China. Indeed, the advice given by the Institute for Peace on the issue back in 1996 still holds true today: It is in the United States’ best interest to “maintain a neutral position on the legal merits of the various territorial claims,” while at the same time retaining “the capacity and willingness to dissuade any single claimant from imposing a solution to the dispute through force”.

The US must be assertive without letting itself be drawn directly into the dispute, thus maintaining the status-quo of non-confrontation in Sino-American relations. One way in which it can be assertive is to counteract China’s “salami slicing strategy,” a term coined by the National Security Council to describe China’s “small but persistent acts…[to] smudge out the economic rights granted by UNCLOS and perhaps even the right of ships and aircraft to transit what are now considered to be global commons.” Examples of this salami-slicing strategy include China’s decisions to operate an oil rig in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), send coast guard ships to the East China Sea, create a civilian outpost on one of the disputed islands, and its assertion, made in 2013, that it has the right to monitor foreign navy and troop activities in the South China Sea outside China’s EEZ.

The US must be assertive without letting itself be drawn directly into the dispute, thus maintaining the status-quo of non-confrontation in Sino-American relations.

Since 2012, assessments conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies have called for the Pentagon to “reallocate forces away from Northeast Asia and towards the South China Sea.” Suggestions include placing more “attack submarines in Guam…and [studying] the possibility of basing an aircraft carrier strike group in Western Australia.” However, the most action the Obama administration seems to be willing to take is to declare that it is losing patience with China and its perceived attempts at territorial expansion. Although some actions by the US, such as sending it destroyer USS Lassen to navigate past Subi Reef, one of the China’s artificial islands, may be interpreted as show of confrontational behavior, the United States’ overall resolve to take constructive action has not matched the might of Chinese expansion.

One of the reasons for US timidity in the region is a false sense of security based on decades-old treaties that the signatories have tended to show little respect for. For instance, the goal of the 1988 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) between the US and China was to avert conflict between aircrafts and ships in the Pacific. However, the agreement fails to address military details and operational limits, relying instead on a “consultative process.” Indeed, most of the treaty is concerned with laying down procedural rules for meetings between diplomats and experts. The only clause that addresses conflict resolution is Article VIII, which dictates that “any disagreement…shall be resolved by consultation between the Parties,” a particularly non-operational and unclear statement, especially in light of possible military conflict.

What is needed is a communication mechanism more similar to those established during the Cold War, and a commitment from both sides to use it in moments of crisis. The best thing for US-China relations could well be another famous red phone. Establishing such a mechanism would allow the US to maintain meaningful communication with China, while also acting as a voice for other countries in the South China Sea who have traditionally been weakened geopolitically by China.

Besides acting as an advocate for less militarily powerful nations in the region, the US should give arms to neighboring Vietnam and the Philippines to deter China from expanding into their areas of control. The trick is to strike a careful balance between the willingness to communicate with China and proactive steps to assist in smaller countries’ defense against it. At the same time, supplying arms to these countries would raise the costs of Chinese military confrontation with them. Although the ultimate goal is to decrease their long-term dependence on the US in the wake of an aggressive move from China, making regional actors more independent is difficult given the sheer might of the Chinese navy.

Another problem facing states around the South China Sea is that the treaties aimed at confidence-building have not been followed by their signatories, thus breaking that trust. For instance, the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) which calls for resolving “territorial and jurisdictional disputes without use of force,” has been repeatedly violated. Therefore, the United States should seek to involve an outside mediator, such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, despite China’s likely opposition to subject itself to the jurisdiction of such international bodies.

China’s claim to regional hegemony has been clear, but the US could take several actions to challenge that hegemony. Firstly, the President needs to work with the current Congress to ratify UNCLOS, which practically all countries involved in the South China Sea dispute, including China, have ratified. Hesitation on passing UNCLOS shows the international community that the US prefers to use international rules only when doing so aligns with its interests. To reverse that belief and credibly stand in solidarity with the South China Sea nations is crucial. Second, the US needs to review how it monitors the behavior of actors in the region, striking a balance that avoids acquiescing to aggression without actively coming off as aggressive. When China is building artificial islands, allowing its salami-slicing strategy to continue is a sign of weakness. More assertive moves, like sending the USS Lassen to Subi Reef, clearly signal the United States’ resolve to challenge “maritime claims that [we] believe are not consistent with international law”. If the US manages to step up its game while making it clear that its intent is aggression-aversion and risk-reduction, the situation in the South China Sea might not immediately get better — but perhaps it could be prevented from getting worse.