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Growing U.S. Role in South China Sea

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
October 11, 2011

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The South China Sea--a zone of conflict between China, Southeast Asian nations, and the United States--appears, on the surface, to have quieted down over the past six months. China and five other nations claim parts of the South China Sea, which has strategic significance and potentially sizable petroleum deposits. Last year, the United States publicly warned Beijing that free passage, and a resolution to claims accepted by all parties, was a U.S. "national interest." The United States has treaty allies in the region, sends ships through the South China Sea regularly, and views the waters as critically strategic. This position, however, infuriated China.

At this summer's ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations celebrated the drafting of an agreement between Southeast Asian states and China to resolve South China Sea disputes peacefully, according to guidelines laid down previously. But the agreement skirts resolution of key issues, and the involvement of the United States as a last-resort guarantor of Southeast Asian states' rights to the sea is likely to grow.

The Looming Problems

The ASEAN-China agreement fails to address the drivers of potential conflict in the South China Sea. For one, the new "deal" is really just a commitment to implement guidelines for all the countries to try and work out rival claims; it hardly guarantees that any of the nations will give up their demands over part of the sea. Both the "deal" and those guidelines are vaguely worded, and mostly avoid overlapping territorial claims to focus instead on issues like environmental protection

What's more, many senior Chinese officials appear to view the South China Sea as an area of "core interest" that is as non-negotiable as other sensitive regions like Taiwan and Tibet--rhetoric that China recently has tamped down but not abandoned. Earlier this year, Chinese vessels cut the cables on Vietnamese ships operating in the South China Sea, and over the year there have been at least ten confrontations on the sea between China and the Philippines.

Second, the ASEAN members who have the most at stake in the South China Sea--principally Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia--are increasingly realizing that their regional organization has little ability to stand up to China. ASEAN has never been a tightly unified organization, and its weakness has become clearer in recent years as China's power has increased and the Southeast Asian nations have proven no more effective at achieving real unity. ASEAN members not involved in the dispute, such as Thailand, have built such a close relationship with China that Vietnam and the Philippines wonder whether, in a more serious dispute, the Thai government would support them.

As a result, Vietnam and the Philippines--and to a lesser extent Malaysia--are increasingly looking to other outside powers for aid, turning not only to the U.S. but also to India. On visits to the United States, senior Philippine officials have pushed their American counterparts to sell Manila a broad range of equipment to assist in the Philippines' naval modernization effort. Philippine leaders also have highlighted the mutual defense treaty that would prompt U.S. forces to come to the Philippines' aid in case of a conflict in the sea. Anti-China sentiment in Vietnam is high, and earlier this year the Vietnamese government, which rarely allows protests of any kind, permitted repeated large anti-China demonstrations. Indeed, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has chronicled a growing arms race in Southeast Asia, with many countries boosting arms purchases by over 50 percent over the past five years.

At the same time, Vietnam has bolstered cooperation with India, which seems to enrage Beijing as much as the continued U.S. presence in the sea. Vietnam and India have launched a joint energy exploration project in the South China Sea--a project harshly condemned by the Chinese media. According to the Financial Times, a Chinese warship confronted an Indian vessel leaving a Vietnamese port in late July. It was the first such clash between China and India in the sea and a portent of dangerous times to come.

All parties in the South China Sea dispute are also becoming even hungrier for energy. Despite Chinese warnings, India and Vietnam are planning to go ahead with their exploration project west of the disputed Spratly Islands, while ExxonMobil plans to drill an exploratory well off the coast of Vietnam next year, and China National Offshore Oil Corp. is also stepping up exploration.

Rethinking U.S. Alliances?

The Obama administration this year has taken a firm but lower-key approach to the South China Sea than it did last year, defusing tensions somewhat with Beijing. But Washington will have to play a larger role in the dispute as Southeast Asian nations look outside ASEAN for support. India--a close U.S. partner--is becoming more involved in the South China Sea, and China says its claims are non-negotiable.

What's more, the South China Sea may eventually help reshape, and harden, U.S. alliances in Asia. In a new report by Asian Alliances in the Twenty-First Century (PDF), a group of U.S. security experts argue that, with China's maritime reach and growing power, the United States should build a larger, more coherent, and more integrated group of Asian military alliances. And while the Obama administration has not embraced this black and white view of the future of Asian alliances, it has tried to shift much of the focus of U.S. power projection (VOA) from the Middle East to Asian partners. It has rebuilt traditional alliances with the Philippines, continued the increasingly close relationship with Vietnam, built a de facto alliance with Singapore, and even wooed Cambodia and Myanmar, countries long alienated from the United States.

In the longer run, however, simply shifting the United States' focus to Asia and staking out a clear position favoring international negotiation over the disputed South China Sea claims may not mollify other Asian nations and sufficiently push back against China. Right now, Vietnam, Singapore, and others are unwilling to make a clear choice between the United States and China, which is becoming the center of Asian economic integration.

But if not building a Cold War-style alliance structure, the United States will have to make clear not only to treaty allies like the Philippines but also partners like Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia that--while hoping for a written multilateral code of conduct for the South China Sea dispute--the United States will bolster its presence in and around the South China Sea. This would include transferring naval assets from the Atlantic to the Pacific, holding regular exercises with partners near the South China Sea, and building up basing capacity in Asian partners like Australia and Singapore. It also means encouraging the ASEAN nations and India to improve their naval-naval communications with China so as to avoid any deadly mistakes in the South China Sea.

Such efforts would allow the United States to continue to play the role of protecting ASEAN nations, international shippers, and oil companies' rights to navigate and explore the South China Sea, rather than relying on China to "grant" them these rights. This tough response to China's approach would help guarantee some degree of peace and stability in the South China Sea, since it is highly unlikely that China will agree to any written code of conduct about the waters in the near future.

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