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Regional Turbulence over South China Sea

Interviewee: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 22, 2011

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China and its neighbors have been engaged in escalating hostilities in the strategically important and oil-rich South China Sea, which the United States insists should be open waterway. The conflict is a test of China's actions as it becomes a more influential player, says CFR South Asia expert Joshua Kurlantzick. He says China's growing military and naval strength and its increased pugnacity are heightening concerns in Vietnam, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Kurlantzick notes that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted last year that any competing claims to the waterway "should be negotiated among the parties and agreed upon--not demanded by China." If the United States sustains pressure, says Kurlantzick, China will likely "go back to working on some sort of jointly discussed and agreed resolution that would allow oil exploration by various different people, including the Chinese [and] the Vietnamese."

Is this brewing crisis in the South China Sea something that needs to be looked at carefully?

It is. Partly because of the competing claims, but partly because it's a good initial test of China's actions as a major power. Southeast Asia in general and certainly the South China Sea is a good lens to examine how China acts as it becomes more influential. Unfortunately, to this point, we're not getting a great answer.

Can you first give us a primer on the issue?

Areas of the South China Sea are contested and claimed by at least five countries: China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. These claims have gone back a long time. China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea. These claims are pretty broad--and probably without total merit. Not surprisingly, the other countries in the region push back. What's also happened in recent years is that there has been some exploration, and there are believed to be significant petroleum deposits in the South China Sea. So not only is it an important strategic area, it's probably a place with significant resources. And all of the countries in the region are increasingly concerned about China's growing military might. Add all that together and there's understandably rising concern.

Over the last two years, and particularly the last few weeks, there have been a series of incidents where different countries claim atolls in the region, attack each other's ships, cut the cables of exploration ships, and seize other people's vessels. Increasingly, this is bringing in the United States as possibly a mediating actor.

Does the United States have a legal position on that?

The U.S. position was enunciated strongly by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year: that it's an important waterway, it should be open to international navigation, and any claims of sovereignty should be negotiated among the parties and agreed upon--not demanded by China. And [she] said it was in America's national interest to make sure there's an open waterway, and that any claims are resolved through mediation, peacefully. That really angered (Reuters) China, because China doesn't want the United States involved in this.

Recently, Vietnamese warships were staging military exercises (Guardian). Are they trying to intimidate China?

They're just trying to show, like the Philippines has tried to show to some extent, that they're not going to be intimidated. Also, all the countries in Southeast Asia have been making major arms purchases over the last few years--submarines, other naval vessels--and that's generally to maintain some balance with China. Also Vietnam is becoming increasingly close militarily with the United States, and that's also to maintain a balance.

There are believed to be significant petroleum deposits in the South China Sea. So not only is it an important strategic area, it's probably a place with significant resources. And all of the countries in the region are increasingly concerned about China's growing military might.

Does the Law of the Sea at all deal with this?

It should, but the countries in the region haven't negotiated any resolution of the sovereignty issues. They began negotiations years ago--but then negotiations were broken off when China made claims all the way up to even a few miles from the shores of the Philippines and other countries.

Why is China so eager to press this case?

There are a lot of possible answers, but China's a somewhat opaque place. They've become more confident in their exercise of military power. China has just generally become more powerful on the world stage, particularly as the economic crisis has weakened Western nations and Japan. Perhaps they sense some weakness among the Southeast Asian nations, particularly the Philippines. There's a recognition of a greater amount of petroleum in the sea. Perhaps China's leadership has become more hawkish, perhaps the People's Liberation Army and the navy have become larger players in the policymaking areas.

The United States has the Seventh Fleet out there?

They're not in the South China Sea, but yes--we patrol the area [and] we have made it clear we're not going anywhere. China doesn't like that. China's also been building a much more sophisticated fleet--they're on their way to building an aircraft carrier, they've built a significant submarine base on the southeastern coast.

The last thing the United States wants is to get involved in is another conflict.

I don't think we want to be involved in anything else right now, given that we have multiple other wars. But we have made clear that we're not going anywhere. We have a number of treaty allies in that region, including the Philippines. We have certain responsibilities to Taiwan, and we have a very close relationship with Vietnam now.

What do the ASEAN nations say?

Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei are all ASEAN nations, so in general, ASEAN's strategy is to try to present some degree of a united front on important issues so that they're not picked off one by one by China. They have presented a sort of general pushback against China's claims in the region, and also generally welcome the U.S. role. ASEAN is not a particularly strong organization, so they're not going to do very much--but they have generally supported their members' claims.

Do the Chinese acknowledge that the United States is concerned about all this?

China's response has been pretty hard-line over the past two years: that the United States should butt out.

There's been talk about the Spratly Islands. Are they inhabited?

I don't know. But there are a lot of atolls and islands in the region on which certain countries in the region, including China, have built installations or claimed. The Spratlys, the Paracels, there are other smaller atolls--there are quite a lot of them--and getting installations and boats onto them is a big deal. The lucrative real estate is under the water--there are very significant petroleum deposits.

Doesn't all the Middle East oil that goes to China go through that sea?

Not all of it. [But] it's a very important strategic area. Also, it's a tense area because you have Taiwan in there too.

Will the conflict continue to just simmer like this?

There will eventually be some denouement. If the United States eventually backs down, China will basically push the countries back, or, with sustained U.S. pressure, they will go back to working on some sort of jointly discussed and agreed resolution that would allow oil exploration by various different people, including the Chinese, the Vietnamese. ExxonMobil has interests. A lot of people have interests.

So the oil companies are out there?

They're not out, but they want to do exploration. ExxonMobil has an interest in jointly exploring with the Vietnamese, but China has pushed back at them.

Is this a popular issue for the governments of Vietnam and the Philippines?

There's a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment among the people in Vietnam, and to a lesser extent, the Philippines. It's definitely an issue that has caught on.

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