from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Turbulent Waters: The United States, China, and the South China Sea

November 02, 2012

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--Singapore (November 2, 2012)

The dynamic city-state and commercial entrepot of Singapore offers an ideal vantage point to consider the geopolitical and economic crosscurrents washing over East Asia. The past three years have underscored the contradictions between East Asia’s dual geoeconomic and geopolitical orders. Notwithstanding China’s modest recent slowdown, three decades of explosive growth have made it the region’s clear economic fulcrum. At the same time, regional stability remains undergirded by a “hub and spoke” system of longstanding bilateral alliances between the United States and China’s neighbors—including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand—as well as emerging security partnerships with Indonesia, Vietnam, and others.

The growing tension between these two orders was a hot topic of discussion at the first regional conference of the Council of Councils (CoC), a CFR-sponsored initiative that periodically assembles leading global think tanks to debate the biggest challenges on the global agenda. Hosted by the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, the meeting (“Asia at the Crossroads”) underscored the dangerous disjunction between Asia’s emergence as the world’s economic motor, on the one hand, and its deepening security rivalries, on the other.

A comparison with contemporary Europe is instructive. During the Cold War the United States   served, in Josef Jeffe’s memorable phrase, as “Europe’s American Pacifier,” providing strategic reassurance against Soviet aggression and creating the space for Western European democracies to pursue joint prosperity and economic integration. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. presence facilitated the EU’s (and NATO’s) eastward expansion. Today, Europe, notwithstanding its economic difficulties, is a continent whole, free, and at peace. The security role of the United States has become residual at best , despite periodic concerns about Russian revanchism.

Not so in East Asia. Here, the United States is more critical to regional stability than at any time in the past two decades, thanks to China’s growing assertiveness, not least in the maritime domain. Through a series of self-inflicted wounds, China has managed in short order to undercut confidence among its neighbors in the “peaceful rise” scenario long advanced by its leadership. Increasingly wary of China’s ultimate intentions, Tokyo, Seoul, Manila, Hanoi, Jakarta, and Canberra have welcomed Washington’s decision—after a decade of costly misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq--to “pivot” (or rebalance”, in the now preferred term)  back to East Asia. For China’s neighbors, the deepening U.S. military presence--including mutual defense exercises and forward deployment of U.S. naval, air, and ground assets—provides indispensable strategic reassurance.

Predictably, the reassertion of U.S. power has elicited howls of protest from Beijing, which condemns these U.S. actions as part of a larger agenda to “contain” China. The Obama administration denies any such motive, and indeed depicts the enhanced U.S. presence as fundamentally in Beijing’s own interest, since it will diminish concerns that China’s rise will upset the Asian apple cart. In America’s absence, U.S. officials worry, regional arms races could easily accelerate and ultimately divide East Asia into mistrustful, armed camps.

To the degree that Beijing feels increasingly “encircled”, it need look no further than the nearest mirror for the cause. The shift in regional perceptions began in reaction to a series of provocative and unsettling Chinese actions during 2009-2010.

The South China Sea has attracted the most attention recently, given competing claims among China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei concerning sovereign jurisdiction over territorial waters, contested islets, and the exploitation of (presumably extensive) undersea oil and gas resources. Ultimately, the differences there and in the East Asia Sea need to be resolved in multilateral forums and be consistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Instead, China has taken a bilateral, heavy-handed approach. The result is to escalate tensions in a region through which more than five trillion dollars of oceanic trade passes each year.

Among other actions, Beijing has advanced a historically dubious “nine dashes” formula, which would give it sovereignty over more than 80 percent of the South China Sea. It has confronted its rivals on the open ocean, including by cutting undersea cables of a Vietnamese seismic survey and sending law enforcement ships to meet a Philippine navy ship attempting to retrieve poached sharks from Chinese fisherman operating in the Scarborough Shoal. And it has intimidated Exxon Mobil and other multinational corporations with the temerity to assist ASEAN states in oil and gas exploration.

The geopolitical stakes are high. As my former State Department colleagues Evan Feigenbaum and Robert Manning write in an excellent Foreign Policy piece, contemporary East Asia is worringly reminiscent of Europe a century ago. Then as now, analysts like Norman Angel argued that unprecedented economic interdependence had rendered war an act of supreme folly. Angel’s diagnosis proved correct but irrelevant. Gnawing vulnerability, strategic miscalculation, and nationalist passions drew European powers into the world’s most pointless and destructive war anyway.

These trends pose serious risks for the United States. The most dangerous contingency would be a direct military clash with China at sea. Prospects for such an incident have risen, as the United States increases freedom of navigation exercises in the littoral waters of East Asia, including the South China Sea. More broadly, there is a growing risk that the United States, despite its best intentions, might be drawn into a military confrontation with China by the reckless actions of a formal treaty ally (the Philippines or, in the East China Sea, Japan) or emerging partner (such as Vietnam) that assumes that Washington will “have its back,” come what may. America’s strategic challenge is to provide its allies and partners with sufficient strategic reassurance without giving (as Germany did so disastrously with the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914) its client a blank check that could set disaster in motion.

Ultimately, peaceful resolution of competing maritime claims in the South China Sea will require multilateral negotiations in conformity with international law, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has observed. The brass ring is a binding Code of Conduct among rival claimants, which has proved elusive. Achieving this result will require at least two shifts. The first is a united front among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose summit in Pnomn Penh in July collapsed into acrimony on this question, thanks to Chinese pressure on the Cambodian hosts. Cambodia gets a second chance to get it right this month, when it hosts the final major meeting of its ASEAN chairmanship, which will consider an Indonesian-proposed draft of the code. The second is real movement from China. At stake in the South China Sea is the entire concept of China’s peaceful rise. Recent weeks provide a glimmer of hope in this regard, including Beijing’s endorsement in mid-October of a joint declaration with ASEAN counterparts, which among other provisions commits the parties to peaceful resolution of disputes and the ultimate goal of a code of conduct. The end of China’s protracted leadership transition , which will officially begin during the eighteenth Communist Party Conference on November 8 may allow a mellowing of recent Chinese behavior, giving the incoming government of Xi Jinping an opportunity to rein in the more assertive positions of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) on maritime issues.

The Obama administration should encourage all parties to move as promptly as possible toward a binding code of conduct. To be sure, as Tom Wright points out, the United States would have much more diplomatic credibility and influence if it were actually a party to UNCLOS, which would demonstrate that it is willing to play by the same rules that it seeks for others. In this regard, the upcoming lame duck session of Congress would be an ideal time for the Senate to finally ratify UNCLOS.