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Home Conferences & Seminars Second International Workshop, November 2010 The South China Sea: an American perspective, by Bronson Percival

The South China Sea: an American perspective, by Bronson Percival

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The South China Sea episodically attracts the attention of the U.S. community concerned about consistency in U.S. positions on international legal questions. The U.S. has commercial interests, including the free flow of maritime trade between the Indian Ocean and Northeast Asia and the ability of U.S. companies to compete on an equal basis to explore for and extract petroleum and other mineral resources in the South China Sea.

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Introduction

U.S. policy with regard to the South China Sea has remained consistent for at least fifteen years, but U.S. interest in this area has waxed and waned. As the local strategic situation has evolved, the U.S. has reacted pragmatically and in accordance with long-standing policy. Because the South China Sea had largely fallen off the mental map of the U.S. government and policy community for most of a decade, it took new assertive actions in the area by China to rekindle U.S. interest and provoke a reaffirmation of U.S. policy.

The United States views the South China Sea through several lenses, whose relevance varies for different sections of the U.S. government and business communities. The dominant lens sees developments in the South China Sea in the context of trends in Sino-U.S. relations. Those officials concerned with vital U.S. strategic interests in East Asia and the growing capabilities of the Chinese navy tend to see developments in the area through this lens. A second lens focuses on the South China Sea as an element in U.S. relations with ASEAN states, and stresses the need to be perceived by U.S. allies and friends in Southeast Asia as reliable and supportive. A third – of growing influence in American policy circles – views the South China Sea as a crucial hinge in the overall U.S. security structure in Asia as distinctions between East and South Asia are seen to be of diminishing relevance.

In addition, the South China Sea episodically attracts the attention of the U.S. community concerned about consistency in U.S. positions on international legal questions. Finally, the U.S. has commercial interests, including the free flow of maritime trade between the Indian Ocean and Northeast Asia and the ability of U.S. companies to compete on an equal basis to explore for and extract petroleum and other mineral resources in the South China Sea.

The three different elements of U.S. policy are distinct. They are:

(i) The United States “takes no position on the legal merits of the competing claims to sovereignty” in the South China Sea

(ii) Maintaining freedom of navigation is a fundamental U.S. “national interest”

(iii) States may not legally restrict military survey operations within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)

Thus in 2009 U.S. National Intelligence Director Admiral Dennis Blair called China’s harassment of the USNS Impeccable while conducting a military survey the most serious military dispute between China and the U.S. since 2001. More recently, the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense have reacted to China’s perceived assertive actions on the South China Sea and its reluctance to clarify its aims by reaffirming freedom of navigation as a U.S. “national interest” and proposing negotiations among all the claimants in the South China Sea.

American officials are stymied by ambiguity in China’s positions with regard to the “nine dash line” marking China’s claims in the South China Sea and by an alleged characterization of this sea as a “core interest.” The motivations for China’s actions are not clear. The internal factors driving Chinese policy are opaque. In American eyes, Chinese actions appear to be counterproductive for several reasons. First, they have compromised China’s decade-long campaign to portray itself as a benign partner to its southern neighbors. Second, they have, in part, accelerated America’s “return to Asia” under the current U.S. administration. Third, after reduced tensions in the South China Sea over most of the past decade had permitted both China and the United States to de-emphasize security as a component in their ties with Southeast Asia, they have given new prominence to traditional security considerations in Southeast Asian states’ relations with external powers.

Some American experts speculate that more confrontational policies in the South China Sea, including against Vietnam, have been part of a larger Chinese effort to test President Obama’s determination to defend U.S. interests in Asia. After rising public acrimony this summer, Washington and Beijing appear to have made little progress in clarifying and resolving their differences, but they have now managed to dampen tensions.

Background and History: U.S. Policy Consistency on the South China Sea

When Secretary of State Clinton publicly expressed concern about Chinese statements on and activities in the South China Sea at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Hanoi, she could have quoted the 1995 U.S. policy statement on the South China Sea, drafted by mid-level U.S. officials. That statement is worth quoting because senior government officials speaking in 2009 and 2010 reaffirmed many of the same points.

“US Policy in the South China Sea

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE

Statement by Acting Spokesperson, May 10, 1995

The United States is concerned that a pattern of unilateral actions and reactions in the South China Sea has increased tensions in the region. The United States strongly opposes the use or threat of force to resolve competing claims and urges all claimants to exercise restraint and to avoid destabilizing actions.

The United States has an abiding interest in the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea. The United States calls upon claimants to intensify diplomatic efforts which address issues related to the competing claims, taking into account the interests of all parties, and which contribute to peace and prosperity in the region. The United States is willing to assist in any way that the claimants deem helpful. The United States reaffirms its welcome of the 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea.

Maintaining freedom of navigation is a fundamental interest of the United States. Unhindered navigation by all ships and aircraft in the South China Sea is essential for the peace and prosperity of the entire Asia-Pacific region, including the United States.

The United States takes no position on the legal merits of the competing claims to sovereignty over the various islands, reefs, atolls, and cays in the South China Sea.[1] The United States would, however, view with serious concern any maritime claim or restriction on maritime activity in the South China Sea that was not consistent with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

However, as an issue either in U.S. relations with China or Southeast Asian states, the South China Sea faded rapidly as U.S. attention flagged in the late 1990s.[2] The 2001 confrontation between a U.S. surveillance aircraft and a Chinese fighter off the island of Hainan quickly but temporarily threatened to turn Sino-U.S. relations into the central issue in the new Bush administration’s foreign policy. However, the terrorist attacks by al Qaeda on the United States in September 2001 drew U.S. attention away from Asia. Washington welcomed the easing of tensions between China and Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea following the issuance of the 2002 agreement between ASEAN and China on a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). However, the South China Sea had already largely disappeared from the U.S. policy agenda in Asia, as Washington focused on Southeast Asia as the “second front” in the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror (GWOT). When U.S. attention drifted away from Southeast Asia after apparently successful counter-terrorism programs in the region, the South China Sea did not re-emerge as a significant bilateral issue in U.S. relations with China or Southeast Asian states.

In Washington in the first half of 2008, interest in the South China Sea began to revive in response to rumors circulating about attempts by an unidentified part of the Chinese government to intimidate ExxonMobil and another petroleum company to suspend their activities in Vietnamese waters under contracts with the government of Vietnam. It was not clear whether these companies had been ensnarled in a bilateral dispute between China and Vietnam, or whether China’s rumored coercion had implications for the South China Sea as a whole.[3]

“At the June 2008 Shangri-la dialogue, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke out against ‘coercive diplomacy … even when they co-exist beside outward displays of cooperation.’ While Gates did not explicitly identify China as the agent of this “coercive diplomacy,” his comment was undoubtedly a clear reference to the controversy over British Petroleum’s commercial activities in Vietnam, and was reinforced within a few months with the revelation that ExxonMobil had come under similar pressure from China.”[4]

In September 2008, then-Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte traveled to Hanoi to confirm U.S. support for the rights of U.S. companies to conduct business in the South China Sea.

“Oblique criticism of China’s greater assertiveness in the South China Sea gave way to a more forthright exposition of U.S. concerns in mid-2009 when two senior administration officials testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on maritime disputes in East Asia. Scot Marciel, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, confirmed that China had put energy companies under pressure to suspend work on projects off the Vietnamese coast, that Washington objected to any “effort to intimidate U.S. companies” and had raised its concerns directly with Beijing. Marciel went on to point out that the ambiguous nature of China’s jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea had become of greater concern to Washington because the areas in which Beijing had warned U.S. energy companies not to operate seemed to lie outside China’s claimed maritime boundaries. He therefore called on the Chinese government to provide greater clarity on the substance of these claims.

In his testimony, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Scher remarked that while the United State supported a negotiated settlement to the dispute, rising tensions over the past few years had prompted the Pentagon to reinforce measures designed to enhance stability in the area. This strategy consists of a continued U.S. military presence in the region, operations by the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea to assert freedom of navigation rights and the expansion and deepening of defense diplomacy and capacity building programs with regional states such as Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia ‘to prevent tensions in the South China Sea from developing into a threat to U.S. interests.’ With regard to the last point, Scher pointed out that U.S.-led security cooperation activities such as regular exercises helped regional states ‘overcome longstanding historical and cultural barriers that inhibit multilateral cooperation.’ In short, America’s military presence in Southeast Asia helps provide a stable environment for the claimants to pursue a political solution and encourages the ASEAN states to increase defense cooperation among themselves at the same time.[5]

In January 2010, the top US military officer in the Pacific, Admiral Robert Willard, stated that China’s ‘aggressive’ program of military modernization appeared designed to “challenge US freedom of action in the region, and, if necessary, enforce China’s influence over its neighbors.”[6]

In February 2010, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Scher reaffirmed U.S. policy in public testimony before the U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission’s hearings on “China’s Activities in the Southeast Asia and the Implications for U.S. Interests” on Capitol Hill.[7]

According to U.S. and Japanese press reporting, in March 2010 Chinese officials told two visiting senior U.S. officials that China had elevated the South China Sea to a “core interest” of sovereignty and would not tolerate any outside interference. “China conveyed the new policy to visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Jeffrey Bader, senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council, in early March, according to sources. The two U.S. officials met with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai in Beijing, and Bingguo is believed to have relayed the policy to the U.S. side.”[8]

In his speech at the Shangri-la dialogue in June 2010 in Singapore, Secretary of Defense Gates said “In this respect, the South China Sea is an area of growing concern. This sea is not only vital to those directly bordering it, but to all nations with economic and security interests in Asia. Our policy is clear. It is essential that stability, freedom of navigation and unhindered economic development be maintained. We do not take sides on any competing sovereignty claims, but we do oppose the use of force and actions that hinder freedom of navigation. We object to any effort to intimidate U.S. corporations or those of any nation engaged in legitimate economic activity. All parties must work together to resolve differences through peaceful, multilateral efforts consistent with customary international law. The 2002 Declaration of Conduct was an important step in this direction, and we hope that concrete implementation of this agreement will continue.”[9]

According to extensive press reporting, at the July 23 ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi Secretary of State Clinton stated “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for law in the South China Sea.” [10]

“In addition, Clinton said resolving disputes off China’s southern coast is ‘a leading diplomatic priority,’ signaling her intention to intercede in a region claimed in full by the Chinese government. Ending disagreements in the South China Sea ‘is pivotal to regional stability’ and to ensuring ‘unimpeded commerce.

Clinton offered support for the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), an agreement designed to promote cooperative confidence building measures. Eight years after the DOC was inked, however, the two sides have yet to reach agreement on how to implement it, partly because China prefers to discuss the issue bilaterally with each of the claimants than with ASEAN as a group, an approach that ASEAN has rejected as ‘divide and rule’ tactics. In a surprise move, Mrs. Clinton said the U.S. was prepared to facilitate talks on implementing the DOC.”[11]

Eleven countries, including the four ASEAN claimants – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – as well as Indonesia, Singapore, the European Union, Australia and Japan, “implicitly defied Beijing and followed Mrs. Clinton with statements on the South China Sea.” [12]

According to a subsequent Washington Post article, “The decision to confront China on the South China Sea dates back several months, after officials noticed that the sea … had crept into the standard diplomatic pitter-patter about China’s ‘core interest.

In addition, Clinton also said: ‘Legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features’ …Translated, it meant that China’s claims to the whole sea were ‘invalid,’ said a senior administration official, because it doesn’t have any people living on the scores of rocks and atolls that it says belong to China.”[13]

According to the Economist, “When 12 of the 27 countries there spoke up for the new approach solving their maritime disputes, China sniffed coordination - nay, conspiracy … That is far from how the administration presents it, however. It argues it is merely reasserting a ‘national interest’ and traditional role in East Asia, a region neglected by an America distracted by terrorism and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Absent without leave, America helped foster an overblown perception in the region of America’s decline and China’s ascent. It is now putting that right. [14]

A subsequent commentator in the Singapore press wrote, “Initially buoyed by United States Secretary Hillary Clinton’s willingness to stand up to Beijing over the South China Sea, some ASEAN governments now have second thoughts about having urged American intervention…Taken aback by the ferocity of Beijing’s counterattack, they are worried about growing tensions between the US and China. They fear that if the crucial U.S. - China relationship were to deteriorate, they would be forced to take sides.

Aware of U.S. plans, however, China joined the informal maneuvering, explaining to ASEAN countries its objection to the issue being ‘internationalized.’ Beijing reiterated that negotiations would be bilateral between China and each claimant

At first the Americans were jubilant with the outcome…But it did not take long for both camps to reassess the situation, after Chinese Foreign Minister Yan Jiechi, with a carefully enacted show of anger, ticked off seven points in rebuttal. Chinese media and think-tanks joined in, warning Asia about ‘divide and rule’ tactics by outside powers and accusing Vietnam of ‘playing with fire’…The fierce Chinese response, prepared well in advance by a Beijing that anticipated that the South China Sea would become an issue under Vietnam’s chairmanship, has had ‘the desired effect on ASEAN’, according to Southeast Asian sources. No one wants to get in a fight with China.”[15]

A day after Secretary Clinton’s public comments, “During a visit to New Delhi, U.S. Admiral Mullen said ‘China seems to be asserting itself more and more with respect to the kind of territorial claims in islands like the Spratlys … they seem to be taking a much more aggressive approach’ in waters Beijing deems of economic and strategic interest.” [16]

Prior to the 2010 U.S. - ASEAN summit in September, “Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa rejected China’s stance that the U.S. stay out of territorial disputes in the South China Sea ahead of a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders with President Barack Obama.”[17]

At the ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting Plus (ADMM+) initial meeting in October in Hanoi, Secretary of Defense Gates “echoed recent statements by Secretary of State Clinton that the U.S. would not take sides in competing claims, but would insist on open access to international waters and shipping lanes … but also said that he did not directly speak with (Chinese Defense Minister) Liang about the South China Sea or other maritime squabbles but that the issue was a hot topic at the conference.” [18] Gates accepted an invitation from his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liang Guanglie, to visit Beijing. American press reporting suggested that the tone of the U.S./Chinese “dispute” over the South China Sea issues had softened.

China’s Assertiveness

“China has two types of arbitrary claims: an assertion that China’s territorial seas extend into much of the South China Sea and the more recent claim that they have the right to control navigation and research activities, not just fishing and seabed resources, within their Exclusive Economic Zones. If not challenged, China’s assertive incrementalism has international legal risks, since international law is built on norms.”[19]

Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs)

The South China Sea has drawn increased U.S. attention, particularly from the U.S. navy, due to the growing capabilities of the Chinese navy (People’s Liberation Army –Navy or PLAN). Though China’s ability to project naval power remains limited, China has constructed a major new naval base on Hainan island fronting on the South China Sea. This base is now home to nuclear submarines and surface combatants, and may house a Chinese aircraft carrier after 2020.

The Chinese naval base at Sanya improves the PLAN’s ability to stage naval forces into the South China Sea. However, China’s desire to push the U.S. Navy as far away as possible from China’s coast, rather than overlapping claims in the South China Sea with Southeast Asian states, provides the principal context for assessing the implications of this new base and of the harassment in March 2009 of an unarmed U.S. surveillance vessel by Chinese ships.

In February and March 2009, the United States dispatched the USNS Impeccable to conduct “military scientific research” in the South China Sea. A civilian manned ship of the U.S. Military Sealift Command, the USNS Impeccable was involved in marine data collection for military purposes about 75 miles south of Hainan island when it was harassed by five Chinese-flagged vessels.[20]

Such data collection is not regulated by a coastal state under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. [21] Nonetheless, though the United States believes its legal case is uncontestable, China had apparently asked the USNS Impeccable to leave its EEZ because it views such data collection within its EEZ as illegal and insensitive.[22] The desire to affirm the U.S. interpretation of its rights is also an important factor in motivating the U.S. to proceed with these missions. Beijing’s interpretation of its rights in its EEZ to restrict military survey operations could have significant implications in the future, should part or all of China’s claims within the “nine dash line” in the South China Sea come to be accepted by the international community.

The U.S. has pushed for dialogue to reduce the risk of further incidents at sea. In August, “U.S. and Chinese officials held a special session under the 1998 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, though little progress was made. Chinese officials at the meeting reportedly reiterated their country’s legal right to restrict foreign military activities in their EEZ and called on the United States to end its surveillance activities off China’s coast.[23] Although the two sides agreed to continue discussions, given their differing interpretations of international maritime law, and the build-up of military forces in the area, incidents such as those involving the Impeccable are likely to become more frequent.” [24]

U.S. National Intelligence Director and former U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) commander Admiral Dennis Blair called the harassment the most serious military dispute between China and the U.S. since 2001.[25] China has not backed down.

The South China Sea

The United States would prefer not to add the South China Sea to its agenda with either China or Southeast Asian states, but has become alarmed by rising tensions in an area where it has fundamental security and important foreign policy interests. The United States depends on free passage through the waters and airspace of the South China Sea to deploy American armed forces between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Through the South China Sea pass about one third of global maritime commerce and more than half of northeast Asia’s imported energy supplies. The seabed also has the potential to become a major source for the energy supplies that are essential to the further economic development of East Asia, though U.S. estimates of potential energy reserves are considerably smaller than those of China.[26] Escalating rivalries in the South China Sea pose the most serious and intractable security problem in Sino-Southeast Asian relations.

The 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was welcomed in Washington. This Declaration deterred claimants from occupying vacant “features” in the South China Sea. Though not a legally binding document between ASEAN and China, the Declaration and China’s campaign to court Southeast Asia in the late 1990s and early part of this decade appeared to pave the way for confidence building measures and eventually peaceful resolution of these disputes. A 2005 agreement on a bloc in the South China Sea in which China, Vietnam and the Philippines would conduct joint seismic research appeared to be the first in a series of confidence building measures until, in 2008, it collapsed amid a political scandal in Manila.

Since late 2007, however, the security situation has deteriorated. At the heart of the problem has been escalating tensions, accusations and actions between China and Vietnam. How the blame for this situation should be distributed is subject to debate, but in American eyes China has reverted to its assertive approach of the 1990s in the South China Sea. China has increased naval patrols, pressured foreign energy companies to halt operations in contested waters, created new administrative mechanisms to strengthen its claims in the Paracel and Spratly islands, and unilaterally imposed fishing bans in parts of the sea. China has also disputed claims to the outer continental shelf advanced by Vietnam and Malaysia through submissions to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and protested a renewal of the Philippine claim to part of the South China Sea. In addition, China has insisted that disputed claims are bilateral issues that should not be settled through multilateral mechanisms. Accordingly, China launched a diplomatic campaign to keep the South China Sea off the regional agenda during Vietnam’s 2010 chairmanship of ASEAN. China’s confrontational approach set the scene for a continuation of the downward spiral of actions and reactions on the part of claimants in the South China Sea. It also provoked a response from the United States, which has gradually escalated as China persisted with actions that appeared to add up to a campaign to coerce other interested parties.

The South China Sea and Southeast Asia

Chinese actions in the South China Sea over the past three years have compromised China’s decade-long campaign to portray itself as a benign partner to its southern neighbors. They have also attracted the attention of a distracted power that could have complicated and constrained China’s diplomatic and economic campaign to court Southeast Asia. China and the United States shared an interest in divorcing the South China Sea from their policies in Southeast Asia as a whole. It may be argued that the primary beneficiary of rising tensions in the South China Sea has been Vietnam.

After the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998, Beijing launched an intensive campaign to court its southern neighbors. China became the foremost supporter of the status quo in Southeast Asia, agreed to place contentious issues such as the South China Sea on the shelf, and learned to play along with Southeast Asia’s “Gulliver Strategy” of tying China into a web of multilateral organizations and commonly accepted norms. The highest level of China’s political leadership was prepared to devote extraordinary time to this effort, and to the resolution of conflicts that bubbled up from lower levels. In return, China asked Southeast Asians for a bit of deference, their participation in China’s booming economy through the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area, and the severance of old semi-diplomatic ties between Southeast Asian states and Taiwan. Asking so little and offering so much, China was successful in portraying itself as an attentive, accommodating and friendly “elephant.”

Moreover, sensitive to local perceptions and preferences, Beijing quickly learned that criticism of Southeast Asian security alliances and partnerships with Washington was not welcomed because it implicitly required Southeast Asian states to choose between China and the United States. Thus, determined to avoid counterproductive competition with the U.S. in the region and well aware of Southeast Asian skittishness when security issues were raised, Beijing ended open, direct criticism of American policies in Southeast Asia in 2001. Instead, it advanced its own new security concepts that fit so well with Southeast Asian preferences and left grumbling about the “militarization” of American foreign policy during the Bush administration to Southeast Asians.

For its part, the U.S. government also resisted internal and external pressure to view Southeast Asia as an area for competition with China. While the U.S. focused on counter - terrorism, it repeatedly stated that it was not engaged in competition with China in Southeast Asia. In 2005, then Deputy Secretary of State Zoellick publicly and emphatically denied that China was the name of the game in Southeast Asia. Washington resisted episodic suggestions that the U.S. alliance relationship with the Philippines applied to the South China Sea.

Insead, when it considered security issues in Southeast Asia, the U.S. focused on:

· Cooperation on counter-terrorism,

· Deepening of the U.S. alliances with Thailand and the Philippines and of the close security partnership with Singapore, as well as new partnerships with Indonesia and Vietnam,

· Support for littoral countries’ efforts to improve maritime security in the Strait of Malacca and the tri-border area between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines,

· Non-traditional security issues

With the South China Sea still as a mill pond, many Southeast Asians (and American experts) began to question the relevance of the old self-declared U.S. role as a “security guarantor” against another major external power. A few U.S. officials continued to privately mutter that “China should be the organizing principle for our policy in Asia,”[27] but their arguments had no traction until China’s policy in the South China Sea began to change.

In the past few years the Chinese government’s attention to Southeast Asia has flagged, though senior Chinese leaders again visited Southeast Asian countries last year and the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement came into force on January 1, 2010. China had hoped to use the first East Asian Summit in December 2005 as a means to assume the leadership of Asian multilateralism, but those aspirations were dashed by the inclusion of additional states at the summit and ASEAN’s determination to retain leadership of this multilateral organization. Meanwhile, Beijing’s accommodating approach to the region as a whole has shifted as it has lost interest and simultaneously reverted to more assertive tactics in advancing its territorial claims in the South China Sea. One result has been to undermine such limited Southeast Asian cohesion as now exists, including through ASEAN. The countries that have acquiesced to increased Chinese influence - Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand – did not join their fellow ASEAN members in speaking out about China’s policies in the South China Sea at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi this summer.

In sum, while the DOC and China’s campaign to court Southeast Asia put the South China Sea “on the shelf” for China and “at the bottom of the in box” for the U.S., South China Sea policy could be largely divorced from both Chinese and U.S. policy for Southeast Asia. This allowed both external powers to de-emphasize traditional security concerns. However, continued tensions in the South China Sea have the potential to change U.S. perceptions and stoke Sino-U.S. competition in the ASEAN region. Such a development will inevitably limit ASEAN countries’ autonomy.

Explaining China’s Policies

One scholar advances three possible explanations for Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

(i) Beijing may be attempting to pressure Hanoi into accepting a joint exploration and production agreement covering energy fields located off the Vietnamese coast.

(ii) China may be signaling to Vietnam its strong disapproval of deeper U.S.-Vietnam security ties.

(iii) Beijing is motivated primarily by geo-strategic concerns such as rising demand for energy, the need to guarantee the security of China’s sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) and China’s great power ambitions.[28]

In Washington, speculation about China’s motives abounds but might be grouped into the following categories:

A) China’s behavior in the South China Sea is a result of Chinese “probing” of American resolution at a time when the U.S. faces domestic economic difficulties.

B) China’s behavior is a natural outgrowth of its “rise” in power in comparison with its southern neighbors. Beijing is now seeking to “collect chits” or secure Southeast Asian acquiescence in its claims as a reward for China’s good behavior in the region over the past decade.

C) China’s long-term policies haven’t changed, but China is sufficiently confident of its strength to allow public airing of South China Sea issues and to decline to clarify its positions in discussions with the United States.

D) China stumbled into a series of disputes with Vietnam and misjudged Hanoi’s ability to pull the U.S. and the majority of ASEAN members into a bilateral dispute.

Only time will reveal the mix in Chinese motivations, but a few factors should be considered:

a) China is particularly sensitive to issues involving the protection of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Defending the boundaries of China’s claimed EEZ and exercising sovereignty over claimed islands in the South and East China Seas are important elements in China’s policy.

b) Chinese leaders believe that the ability to gain access to resources within and below the sea is essential for China’s future economic development. Many of these resources, particularly energy resources, are believed to lie within China’s claimed territorial waters and EEZ.

c) Chinese security analysts have written extensively in the past few years on the importance of SLOCs. Chinese maritime trade with most of the globe passes through the South China Sea, as does about 75% of all of Chinese shipping.

d) China is designing an anti-access strategy to impose high costs on U.S. naval ships seeking to penetrate China’s coastal areas, but it has yet to articulate how growing naval capabilities should be used to protect China’s many interests in the maritime domain. The first priority is to defend China’s territorial and EEZ claims. As yet, the Chinese navy has little ability to project power but the South China Sea is one area where the Chinese navy can exert pressure.

Outlook

At this point in time, the United States has stood up for fundamental principles such as freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, strengthened its relationship with Vietnam, and worked closely with the majority of ASEAN states. Washington is perplexed by China’s reluctance to clarify its positions. One American scholar has suggested that, over time, China is likely to “soften” its positions, Southeast Asia is likely to “adjust,” and U.S. interest in the South China Sea is likely to “subside.”[29]

In the meantime, several factors will influence U.S. policy. These include:

A) The U.S. will not be intimidated or compromise on fundamental principles.

B) Sino-U.S. relations, a mix of cooperation, rivalry, and competition, are already burdened with complex and important issues. The U.S. would prefer not to add the South China Sea to this list. At the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) in October the Secretary of Defense accepted an invitation to visit China. However, security issues in the South China Sea can no longer be separated from U.S. and Chinese policies towards Southeast Asia as a whole. China continues to cling to its “divide and rule” policy of bilateral negotiations with individual claimants in the South China Sea and may resent American reassertion of its rights, but in the American view the burden is now principally on China to reduce tensions and clarify its goals.

C) The United States would like to strengthen ASEAN’s role in the South China Sea, enhance ASEAN’s status, and reassure Southeast Asian states that the U.S. will remain involved. The U.S. will be particularly attentive to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. It will look to ASEAN to take the lead in “giving life” to the code of conduct.

D) For historical reasons, much of Washington’s foreign policy elite is particularly pleased with the rapid improvement in U.S.-Vietnamese relations. Inevitably, however, both Hanoi and Washington will calculate their long-term interests in further cooperation given their relationships with China.

E) Although they now appear to be a minority that is a step behind the emerging consensus, advocates of a less accommodating policy with regard to China see the South China Sea as an opportunity to test China.[30] Others, who must plan for worst - case scenarios, are focused on the growing capabilities of the Chinese navy. But the “foot is now off the accelerator on the South China Sea.”

The internal factors driving China’s policy in the South China Sea are opaque. Americans often find it difficult to determine whether Chinese policies reflect decisions on the part of central authorities in Beijing or competition within China between bureaucratic or provincial interests. However, should Beijing be prepared to clarify its goals in the South China Sea in discussions with the United States and enter into negotiations with ASEAN, tensions over the South China Sea may again take a back seat as the U.S. and China manage their bilateral relationship over the next few years./.

Author’ biography

Bronson Percival

A retired diplomat and former professor at the U.S. Naval War College, is currently a Senior Advisor with the Center for Strategic Studies at CNA (formerly the Center for Naval Analyses). He also chairs a course on Southeast Asia at the U.S. Foreign Service Institute and recently taught a class on China and Southeast Asia at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

Percival has written a book on China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia. The Dragon Looks South: China and Southeast Asia in the New Century was published in 2007. He has also spoken in the United States and abroad on China’s goals and activities in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. In February 2010 he testified before Congress at hearings on China and Southeast Asia.

In the past few years, Percival’s classified publications have included studies for the U.S. government on maritime security in the Indian Ocean and on a strategy for U.S.-Indian maritime cooperation. He has also presented conference papers, in New Delhi and Singapore, on the regional security environment and growing Chinese and Indian naval ambitions and power.

Percival was educated at the University of California-Berkeley (A.B.), the National War College (M.S.), and the University of Chicago, where he completed course work and research in India for his Ph.D.


[1] Chinese maps show a nine-dash line – which is based on a 1947 map produced by the Republic of China – outlining its claims in the South China Sea. Known as the “cow tongue,” Beijing continues to use this map as a general reference to its claims in the South China Sea. The Paracel Islands (Xisha) are currently occupied by China but also claimed by Vietnam. The Spratly Islands (Nansha) are claimed by China. Four of ASEAN’s members - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - have claims in the South China Sea, which overlap with each other and with claims advanced by China and Taiwan.

[2] At that time, a then U.S. National Security Council official privately told the author that the South China Sea was “no longer an issue.”

[3] China’s actions against the companies involved may have been in response to Vietnamese plans. “In 2007, Vietnam drew up a long-term plan to integrate the development of its coastal territory with the marine resources in the South China Sea. China responded by applying behind the scenes pressure on Western oil companies likely to be involved, such as ExxonMobil, and threatened retaliation against their commercial interest in China if they proceeded with exploration ventures with Vietnam.” Thayer, Carl A., “The United States and Chinese Assertiveness in the South China Sea,” Security Challenges, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Winter 2010), p. 76. At the same time, visiting Vietnamese academics told American interlocutors in Washington that China had launched a concerted campaign to intimidate Vietnam on South China Sea issues.

[4] Schofield, Clive and Ian Storey, “The South China Sea Dispute: Increasing Stakes and Rising Tensions,” The Jamestown Foundation, November 2009, p. 39.

[5] Schofield, Clive and Ian Storey, “The South China Sea Dispute: Increasing Stakes and Rising Tensions,The Jamestown Foundation, November 2009, p. 39-40.

[6] Storey, Ian, “Power Play in S. China Sea Stirs up Tensions”, The Straits Times, July 27, 2010

[7] In addition to DAS Scher, American regional experts testified on aspects of China’s policies in the region. The author’s testimony, “Threat or Partner: Southeast Asian Perceptions of China,” dealt extensively with South China Sea issues.

[8] “China Tells U.S. that S. China Sea is ‘core interest’ in new policy,” Kyodo News Service, July 3, 2010. In the absence of a public Chinese statement confirming that China has raised the South China Sea to a “core interest” on par with Taiwan or Tibet, a few American experts have begun to question the meaning of China’s alleged definition of the South China Sea as a “core interest.” Some Chinese officials and academics may have subsequently sought to “walk back” China’s position on whether the South China Sea constitutes a “core interest.”

[9] Remarks as delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert S. Gates, Shangri-la Hotel, Singapore, June 5, 2010, http://www.defense.gov/Speeches/Speech.aspx?SpeechID=1483

[10] Landler, Mark, “Offering to Aid Talks, U.S. Challenges China on Disputed Islands”, The New York Times, July 23, 2010

[11] Storey, Ian, “Power Play in S. China Sea Stirs Up Tensions,” The New Straits Times, July 27, 2010

[12] Wain, Barry, “ASEAN Caught in a Tight Spot,” The Straits Times, September 16, 2010. Not all Southeast Asian countries have a direct stake in the South China Sea; Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand have resisted attempts to drag them into a conflict with China, the predominant external influence in their countries.

[13] “Obama Administration Takes a Tougher Tone with China,” Washington Post, July 30, 2010

[14] “Banyan: They Have Returned,” The Economist, August 14, 2010

[15] Wain, Barry, “ASEAN Caught in a Tight Spot,” The Straits Times, September 16, 2010

[16] “China Taking ‘More Aggressive’ Stance at Sea: US Admiral,” Agence France Press (AFP), July 24, 2010

[17] Ten Kate, Daniel and Susan Li, “Indonesia Rejects China’s Stance that U.S. Stay out of Local Waters Dispute,” Bloomberg, September 22, 2010

[18] Whitlock, Craig, “The U.S. has “national interest” in Asian Sea Disputes,” The Washington Post, October 12, 2010

[19] Cronin, Patrick and Paul Giarra, “China’s Dangerous Arrogance,” The Diplomat, July 23, 2010

[20] The standoff between the USNS Impeccable and the PLAN vessels was followed by another incident in which a PLAN submarine snagged a sonar array towed by the USS John S. McCain off the coast of the Philippines. However, this incident was probably the result of a mistake by the Chinese submarine rather than a deliberate attempt to harass the U.S. ship.

[21] The one major exception to China’s acceptance of UNCLOS and common international practice concerns the status of military ships in EEZs. Contrary to the positions of the U.S. and other traditional maritime powers, China has consistently argued that the status of military vessels operating in another country’s EEZ has not been settled by UNCLOS. Thus freedom of navigation in an EEZ does not extend to such activities as survey operations by naval ships. Chinese legal analysts view the claims that military ships have the right to conduct hydrological and survey operations in an EEZ as a claim from an era before 1949.

[22] For a discussion of the legal issues involved, see Yang Fang, “Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) regime in East Asian waters: Military Intelligence-gathering activities, Marine Scientific Research (MSR) and hydrographic surveys in an EEZ,” RSIS Working Paper No. 198, May 21, 2010, as well as Sam Bateman, “Clashes at Sea: When Chinese Vessels Harass US Ships,” RSIS Commentaries, 13 March 2009; Patrick J. Neher, Raul A. Pedrozo and J. Ashley Roach, “In Defense of High Seas Freedoms, RSIS Commentaries, 24 March 2009; B.A. Hamzah, “EEZs: U.S. Must Unclench its Fist First,” RSIS Commentaries, 9 April 2009.

[23] China claims about 3 million square kilometers of ocean as part of either its territorial waters or Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). More than half of these claims are disputed by its neighbors. The Gulf of Tonkin is the only maritime boundary where China has negotiated a boundary treaty.

[24] Schofield, Clive and Ian Storey, “The South China Sea Dispute: Increasing Stakes and Rising Tensions,” The Jamestown Foundation, November 2009, p. 41.

[25] Percival, Bronson, “Threat or Partner: Southeast Asian Perceptions of China,” Testimony before the U.S.-China Review Commission on “China’s Activities in Southeast Asia and the Implications for U.S. Interests,” February 4, 2010, p. 7

[26] Some Chinese experts have labeled this sea a “new Persian Gulf.”

[27] Senior U.S. official in 2007.

[28] Thayer, Carl A., “The United States and Chinese Assertiveness in the South China Sea,” Security Challenges, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Winter 2010), pp. 81-83.

[29] Brantly Womack, oral comments at an East-West Center - Washington Book Launch, October 29, 2010, Washington, D.C.

[30] Americans who have unsuccessfully advocated for policies to “contain” China have found their arguments strengthened by China’s actions since 2008 in the South China Sea. One prominent commentator, Robert Kaplan, recently wrote in the Washington Post (“China’s Caribbean,” September 26, 2010) that “The geographic heart of America’s hard-power competition with China will be the South China Sea, through which passes a third of all commercial maritime traffic worldwide and half of the hydrocarbons destined for Japan, the Korean peninsula and northeast China … China seeks domination of the South China Sea to be the dominant power in the Eastern Hemisphere.”


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