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Avoiding a Tempest in the South China Sea

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
September 2, 2010

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Over the past decade, dating back to the end of the Asian financial crisis, China has drastically expanded its international presence, including in Latin America, Africa, and Central Asia. But China's rising global power--both soft and hard--has been felt first in Southeast Asia, a region seen by some Chinese strategists as equivalent to Latin America in the U.S. Monroe Doctrine.

As a result, the region likely will prove the first real test of whether the United States and China can manage China's rise. Can the two powers work more closely in Southeast Asia, allowing potential conflicts to be defused through communication, permitting nations in the region to not have to take sides, and prodding China to take more of the burdens of the international commons? (See Evan Feigenbaum's blog "China's Rise and the Contested Commons.")

Judging from the heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing--as well as between Beijing and the nations of Southeast Asia--over the South China Sea, the answer to that question, thus far, seems to be no.

Competing Sea Claims

China has for years claimed sovereignty over a wide swath of the South China Sea, which sits astride strategic and commercially important sea-lanes and contains vital deposits of oil and gas. Those claims are hotly disputed by countries in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. Several countries, including China, have tried to strengthen their claims by making facts on the ground--or, in essence, the water--and building installations on some of the islands in the South China Sea. Though several of the countries involved in the South China Sea dispute are not democracies, including China, they all do have to take into account domestic public opinion, which tends to be highly nationalistic about the sea, particularly young, Internet-savvy, urban, middle-class Chinese, who use the Web and chat boards to boost nationalism.

Over the past decade, China publicly played down its claims to the South China Sea as it embarked on its soft power charm offensive to build closer economic, diplomatic, and even security ties to countries in Southeast Asia. It signed a multilateral code of conduct about the South China Sea in 2002. But over the past year, and particularly in recent months, that softer approach seems to have been largely abandoned.

Southeast Asia likely will prove the first real test of whether the United States and China can manage China's rise.

Now, China has claimed that the South China Sea is a core national interest, a term it used in the past to refer to Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, and which tends to mean that Beijing will brook no discussion or questioning of its policies, and possibly will push back ever harder against the U.S. military presence in the sea. In recent years, Beijing also has warned American oil companies not to engage in joint exploration deals of the South China Sea with Vietnam, and reportedly has told Southeast Asian nations not to discuss issues related to the South China Sea amongst themselves.

U.S. military officials say that China also increasingly has stopped other countries' civilian boats operating in the South China Sea and arrested their operators. Last year, one U.S. surveillance vessel in the South China Sea came within twenty-five feet of Chinese ships, an extremely dangerous distance because such close quarters could lead to an accident; the American boat was about seventy-five miles from an underwater submarine complex of China's.

A U.S. "National Interest"

To some extent, China's view makes sense. If a major foreign power were to deploy significant naval power in the Gulf of Mexico, Washington probably would object. Yet the fact is, U.S. power has been a presence in Southeast Asia for six decades. Many countries in the region want the United States to remain as a balancer and trust the United States as an honest broker on issues related to the South China Sea far more than they trust China. The United States is going to continue to have a sizable military presence in the South China Sea [the Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, regularly patrols there] for the immediate future. At the recent ASEAN Regional Forum, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that Washington was concerned about the competing claims for the sea, and said resolving the claims peacefully was an American "national interest."

Though several of the countries involved in the South China Sea dispute are not democracies they all have to take into account domestic public opinion, which tends to be highly nationalistic about the sea.

She backed an international, collaborative diplomatic process--a rebuke to Beijing, which called her words an "attack on China"--to deal with claims. American officials told reporters that at least twelve Asian countries had pushed for this kind of dispute mechanism. Indeed, while several Southeast Asian nations in the past expressed willingness to negotiate claims in the South China Sea bilaterally with China, now many of these same states, including the Philippines, prefer a multilateral process. And since the ASEAN nations do not have any powerful regional institutions that could effectively handle competing claims and maintain regional stability, the United States must play a role in that multilateral process.

In private, officials from the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam, among others, all have pushed the United States to weigh in much more heavily on the South China Sea disputes. Vietnam, in particular, has sought a closer security relationship with the United States as a balance to China. The United States and Vietnam have launched an annual defense dialogue between the Pentagon and Hanoi's defense ministry, and the United States may be about to embark upon a deal to share nuclear fuel and technology with Hanoi. In fact, while the Obama administration came into office planning to make a drastically upgraded relationship with Indonesia the center of its Southeast Asia initiative, it may turn out that its greatest legacy in the region is a new security relationship with Vietnam that eventually could be on the level of the U.S. relationship with Singapore--not a treaty ally, but virtually one.

Southeast Asian fears of China are only going to grow. As the region becomes more economically interdependent with China, the result of an ASEAN-China free trade deal, and thus more reliant on China, Southeast Asian leaders probably will become even more worried about their independence and sovereignty. Already, over the past five years the region has embarked on a significant arms buildup, with Vietnam and Malaysia buying up new orders of submarines, and Thailand and Indonesia considering doing the same.

An International Water Body

What's needed is both a short-term cooling-off period from this summer's tensions and a longer-term strategy. In the short term, the United States, China, and the key Southeast Asian nations could quietly agree to tamp down rhetoric over the South China Sea, keep the South China Sea off the agenda of regional meetings in the near term, and utilize track-two diplomacy to explore durable solutions.

A longer-term strategy for Washington and its friends in Southeast Asia should be to unite around a common position on the sea that keeps it an open and international body of water and does not force countries to choose between Washington and Beijing. It should also be made clear that Washington is not going to leave the region any time soon--precisely because Southeast Asian nations want a U.S. presence there. From a U.S. perspective, this strategy would include pushing greater integration between the U.S. Navy and navies of regional friends like Vietnam and Malaysia, as well as potentially increasing arms sales to upgrade the navy of Vietnam in particular. At the same time, the United States should use military-to-military ties with China (provided Beijing wants such ties) to discuss the South China Sea, explore with China the possibility of an international procedure to adjudicate claims, and examine ways to avoid direct conflict in the sea.

However, even as Washington discusses the sea in these bilateral interactions with China, the most effective pressure on Beijing would come from Southeast Asian nations, who can more effectively emphasize that they continue to back a U.S. presence and that they, not the United States, are behind the desire to resolve South China Sea claims multilaterally. China has invested heavily over the past decade in building trade ties with Southeast Asia and trying to convince the region's leaders, and its people, that China is not a threat. As a result, the ASEAN nations do have leverage in dealing with China.

This year the ASEAN nations became the third-largest trading partner of China, giving the Southeast Asian states an indicator to the world of what kind of power China will become. If ASEAN, which already has such substantial economic and cultural ties with China, cannot resolve critical issues with China in a reasonable, collaborative manner, how could states in Africa or Latin America, which have much less leverage over Beijing, expect to do so? A real resolution to the South China Sea dispute would go a long way toward helping China's case.

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