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U.S. Ups the Ante in Sino-American Conflict Over the South China Sea

Aug 03, 2020
  • Sajjad Ashraf

    Former Adjunct Professor, National University of Singapore

While the world remains consumed by the spread of Covid-19, many areas with potential for major crises are going unnoticed.  The South China Sea (SCS), much of which is claimed as a sovereign territory by both China and Taiwan, is one such area. In addition to claims by the PRC and ROC, Vietnam, the Phillipines, Brunei and Malaysia all claim part of the sea, bringing them in direct conflict with Mainland China. The United States dismisses these Chinese claims, as do the US’s allies.   

Earlier in the month, China conducted its usual naval drills near the disputed Paracel Islands in the SCS, which the Philippines and Vietnam protested against. In response, the US sent two aircraft carrier strike forces, USS Ronald Reagan (the world’s largest ship) and USS Nimitz into the disputed area for its own exercises.   

The US accuses China of building and militarizing eight artificial islands, as well as two dozen island outposts around disputed reefs and islets which several smaller states claim as their own territory.

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, “five claimants occupy nearly 70 disputed reefs and islets spread across the SCS. They have built more than 90 outposts on these contested features, many of which have seen expansion in recent years.” Of these, China has 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands, and 7 in the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines controls nine features in the Spratly Islands, one of which also boasts an airstrip.  Vietnam occupies about 50 posts spread across 27 features in the SCS, Malaysia occupies five features, and Taiwan only one.

Each one of these states militarized its possessions years ago, falsely claiming technical or scientific reasons for their doing so.  In fact, China gets the blame for militarizing the artificial islands, but it is Vietnam and the Philippines that “militarized” the reclaimed features first.  

For China, the Philippines and Vietnam – who both have major contested claims with China – are vexing problems.  Though the Duterte administration in the Philippines sidelined a 2016 tribunal on the SCS, both the US and pro-US groups within the Philippines continue to pressure the Philippines government to handle the SCS sovereignty issue based on The Hague tribunal’s judgement.  The recent decision of the Philippines to rescind notices of termination on Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US points to this direction.  The Vietnamese and the US interest converge on the SCS: control over the SCS provides a perfect strategic base for the US to attempt containing China, providing a balance against the Chinese predominance for Vietnam. 

China’s offer not to militarize any of the features in the SCS made to President Obama (that is, as long as the US does not send its naval vessels in the SCS to provoke the Chinese) was spurned by the US military establishment, thus missing a major opportunity for great power cooperation.  

The South China Sea is a place of tremendous economic importance. It holds about 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves., and much more remains potentially undiscovered.  The value of fish resource in the SCS also runs into the billions of dollars. One-third of global shipping passes through the SCS. 

With China’s total trade worth around $4.6 trillion in 2019, the country needs secure sea lanes more than any other country.  The South China Sea is China’s front yard, through which much of its trade and energy flows. It is therefore perfectly natural for China to object to US’s Freedom of Navigation Operations so close to its coast. 

The US maintains several military bases around China, and some are nuclearized.  Further, 60 percent of US Navy is generally deployed in the Pacific region.  The US has also collaborated with Japan, Australia and India – the so-called ‘Quad’ – on operations in the SCS, something that poses a direct threat to China’s sea lanes. No nation that relies so much on international commerce can afford to leave its sea passage at the mercy of an adversarial power. The ‘rules-based order’ which the US expects from others is essentially an ‘American order,’ a fact made clear by the US’s refusal to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas – the basis for The Hague’s 2016 ruling on the South China Sea – while still using it to back up its own argument against China’s territorial claims. China, the emerging power, refuses to succumb to this selective application of principles. 

These American provocations, along with deepening military alliances in the region, leave Beijing with no alternative except to build up its defenses to secure its supply routes through the SCS.  

Amidst this China – US tussle, the countries of Southeast Asia face a particular dilemma. The US believes in an “either you are with us or against us” policy.  These countries see the US as a resident power in the region, whereas a rising China is a reality on the doorstep. And while underscoring China’s deepening engagement with the region, they do not want to be forced to make a choice between the two, as Lee Hsien Loong notes in his analysis of the situation. 

The US has now formally declared that Chinese policies “harm vital American interests”, which ups the ante in Sino-US competition. Left unchecked, the conflict jeopardizes the growth of Asia-Pacific region and beyond. It is time to heed to Professor Hanz J. Morgenthau’s famous rule of diplomacy – never put yourself in a position from which you cannot advance without grave risks, or from which you cannot withdraw without losing face.

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