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Foreign Policy

South China Sea Issue Tests China-US Relations

May 26 , 2015
  • Su Xiaohui

    Deputy Director of Int'l & Strategic Studies, CIIS

Lately, the media has focused on the potential of institutionalized US military presence in the South China Sea. It was reported that one of the country’s newest warships, the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth, completed a weeklong patrol in the related waters. In addition, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter requested options for sending additional US aircraft and ships to the South China Sea and deploying them within 12 nautical miles of reefs where China has been building facilities.

At the same time, the US is contemplating more countermeasures. Its military official has expressed willingness to involve Japan and ASEAN in the patrols in the South China Sea. In response to this signal, the Philippines already announced its plan to provide infrastructure support, including building a naval base.

The above renewed activities in the South China Sea hit a nerve in China. Even though the US claims that it does not get involved in disputes and all the actions serve the so-called “freedom of navigation”, its operation essentially points to the sovereignty issue. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), every state has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from baselines determined in accordance with this convention. Accordingly, the “12 nautical miles” is taken as a symbol of territorial waters. Foreign actions within this scope naturally have an impact on the sovereign state’s security environment.

Obviously, the US seeks to utilize sending vessels within 12 nautical miles of reefs to punish or in revenge for China’s land reclamation. The US defined China’s island-building as changing the so-called “status quo” in the South China Sea as well as provocation to other claimants. The US explicitly explained its concern about the pace and scope of the construction and the potential military use of the facilities. It pressured China to “freeze” the construction.

The US believes that the countermeasures will deter China from further capacity development in Nansha Islands and support the US in managing the situation. The US will be able to strengthen the relationship with Southeast Asian countries and implement its strategic rebalance to Asia.

However, the superpower has made miscalculations on the current developments in South China Sea.

On one hand, the US underestimates China’s resolution for defending its territory and related interests in the South China Sea. It is China that proposed the idea of building a new type of relationship with major countries and tries to avoid confrontation with the US in its process of development. However, it doesn’t mean that China will make concessions in the issues concerning sovereignty to please other great powers. China has made clear response that it is “deeply concerned” by reports about the US enhanced plans for military presence in the South China Sea and demanded a clarification.

China does not aim at resolving the South China Sea disputes by force, but the country will not give up the rights to make preparations for unexpected situations. Faced with increasing uncertainties in the South China Sea, China is forced to set multiple plans for defending national interests and security, including building up the capacity for air and maritime surveillance.

On the other hand, the US overestimates the regional countries’ support for the US increasing military presence in South China Sea. The Philippines is eager to fit the US in the South China Sea disputes. However, ASEAN and the non-claimants are cautious about deeper involvement of the US in key regional issues. These countries prefer addressing the problems within regional frameworks such as “10+1” and are unwilling to take sides between two major countries like China and the US.

The allies of the US also have difficulties in fully coordinating the US assignments. The ruling party in Japan Liberal Democratic Party would love to draw closer to the US, but concerning the plans for patrols in South China Sea, the government is faced with strong opposition from civilians. This may prevent Japan from rushing to the determination. In the Philippines, the president and foreign minister are the important persons that push forward military cooperation with the US, while many ordinary people are bitter about the return of US forces and object to the re-establishment of US bases on the country’s territory.

In this context, it is helpful for the US to improve its understanding of China’s policy thinking, especially the basic principles and guidelines. When the US talks about international norms, it also needs to appreciate historical facts and respect the interests rooted in history.

The US has little room to intervene in the sovereignty issue, but it is likely for this country to play a role in crisis management in South China Sea. It is a blessing for the country to stay alert on some proactive actions taken by regional countries, especially for a certain claimant that used to be indulgent in taking actions.

The South China Sea issue casts a dark shadow over the cooperation between the two countries. Some analysts have even hyped a “tipping point” in China-US relations based on the heightened contests in the South China Sea. It is the time to prevent this dispute from dominating the bilateral relationship.

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