U.S. is right to assail China on its South China Sea claims

Posted on August 16, 2012

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THE SOUTH CHINA sea stretches over 1.4 million square miles, rich in natural resources and bejeweled with islands. China has long regarded much of the sea as its own, claiming waters more than 1,000 miles from its shores and very close to the shores of other nations. Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei make competing and overlapping claims in a tangled yet high-stakes rivalry.

The territorial disputes stretch back decades, but took a new twist recently. In an Aug. 3 statement, the State Department criticized China for aggressive actions to reinforce its claims. The next day, China’s Foreign Ministry summoned an American diplomat for a formal protest and announced that the United States “showed total disregard of facts, confounded right and wrong, and sent a seriously wrong message.”

Why this matters is that the United States has announced a pivot toward Asia, a seminal move to counter China’s rising influence, including a rebalancing of forces over the next eight years toward a goal of 60 percent of the Navy in the Pacific, up from half at present. According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, that will include six aircraft carriers and a majority of cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines.

The United States is neutral on the territorial claims in the South China Sea. But the State Department’s statement was intended to push back against China’s recent harrying of the Philippines and Vietnam over disputed fishing and oil drilling rights. China has announced that it is upgrading the administrative level of Sansha city, on one of the Paracel islands, to a prefecture and establishing a military garrison there, a further signal of its intent. Worried neighbors are welcoming more port calls from U.S. naval forces.

The U.S. statement called for resolving disputes peacefully. China saw it, quite accurately, as a challenge on behalf of the weaker states in the region and insisted the United States “respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” What exactly does that entail? China has a very expansive claim to the sea, based on nine dashed lines sketched in a very imprecise fashion on a map six decades ago. The claim encroaches on some of the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones granted to other countries by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China has insisted that it will work out the disputes one by one, and the United States should stay away. But the State Department’s statement accurately asserted that the United States has a “national interest” in the region: not territorial, but to protect regional stability and the huge volume of international shipping that passes through the sea. The sea is clearly a flashpoint. Everyone needs to make sure it does not become a sea of hostility.

Washington Post

The China Choice: A Bold Vision for U.S.-China Relations

Instead of maintaining a dangerous status-quo, Washington should attempt a new approach to avoid a possible deadly strategic rivalry.

My new book, The China Choice, explores the decision America faces about its relations with China and its role in Asia as China’s power grows.  But the title may be a little misleading, because of course there is more than one choice to be made.  America faces at least two decisions, and one of the keys to making them well and getting them right is to consider them in the right order.

The first is on the question of principle: should America even contemplate changing the role it plays in Asia, in order to accommodate China’s rising power, or should it insist on preserving the status quo?  The second is on the question of degree: how far should America be willing to go to accommodate China, and where should it draw the line beyond which it is not willing to make further concessions?

Rory Medcalf’s valuable critique of the book here on The Diplomat last week focuses primarily on the second question, and makes some important points about it which I will explore a little later.  But I’ll start by saying something about the first question, because we cannot decide how far Washington should go to accommodate Beijing before we are quite clear that it should even try to do so, and why.

In The China Choice I argue that America should try to accommodate China’s growing power.  I propose that it should be willing negotiate a new regional order in which it continues to play a major strategic role, but not the kind of primacy that it has exercised until now. The main reason is simply that China no longer accepts U.S. primacy as the basis for the Asian order, and that as its power grows to equal and overtake America’s, the chances of successfully imposing primacy on China are too low, and the risks and costs of trying are too high, to be justified.

Even if China may not become strong enough to dominate Asia itself, it is already strong enough to prevent the U.S. maintaining primacy.  If America tries to perpetuate the status quo, there is a very real risk of an escalating contest which neither side could win, and which could very easily flare into a major, and perhaps catastrophic, war.  The main reason for America to seek an accommodation with China is to reduce the risk of such a catastrophe.

Many people will disagree.  Some of them think that the relationship with China is working fine, and that accommodation – or further accommodation – is unnecessary.  They think that Washington is committed to a good relationship with Beijing, and that China will be satisfied with the kind of relationship America is offering now.

I think this is too optimistic.  The relationship today can manage day-to-day stresses, but is not robust enough to withstand real problems.  Some people cite the Chen case earlier this year as proof that the relationship is strong, but the fact that such a minor issue can cause such anxieties about the future of the world’s most important bilateral relationship surely points the other way.   The U.S.-China relationship is probably going to have to face much greater stresses in future, and it is not at all clear that it is strong enough to withstand them.  Furthermore, the relationship seems to be getting weaker rather than stronger over time, so the risk of a rupture grows.

The present fabric of the relationship is weak and getting weaker because China’s and America’s ambitions in Asia over coming decades are inherently incompatible.  It is important to my argument to explain why this should be so.  Those who think that America is already accommodating China have perhaps not really registered what is at stake here.  For the past 40 years the Asian strategic order, and the U.S.-China relationship, have been based on a conception of American leadership which places all other countries in Asia in a clearly subordinate position.  American policy today precludes any substantial change in this status quo over the coming decades.  This was made clear by Barack Obama in his speech in Canberra in November of last year.

American optimism about the future of the relationship therefore depends on the hope that China will find this acceptable.   It is often said that America’s policy towards China today is not containment.  But Washington clearly does resist any substantial expansion of China’s influence at the expense of U.S. primacy.  So if it’s not containment, that can only be because China is not seeking such an expansion.

That seems to be wishful thinking.  China accepted American primacy when America was many times richer and stronger than China.  Now that the balance of relative power has changed, China’s ambitions have expanded.  It would be very surprising if they hadn’t.  Moreover those ambitions go very deep, fuelled by nationalism.  There is no reason to assume that China is not just as committed to changing the status quo to increase its influence as America is to preserving the status quo to maintain its influence.  So there is no reason to assume that China will just back down, and more than America will.

This means that, unless America is willing to withdraw from Asia, it does face a choice between accommodating China or competing with it.  Some people – like Professor Aaron Friedberg of Princeton – see the probability of rivalry but argue against seeking an accommodation with China because they think the costs of accommodation would be higher than those of rivalry.  This may turn out to be true, because it partly depends on how much we would have to concede to China to reach an accommodation.

But those who argue that we should not even seek an accommodation must assume that the costs of any possible deal with Beijing would outweigh the costs of rivalry.  That view seems to me to imply a very serious underestimation of the kind of rivalry we might be talking about and where it might lead.  As a rival, China is already the most formidable country America has every faced, because it is economically stronger relative to America than any country has been in over a century.  A war with China would be hard to contain, and could swiftly become bigger than anything since the Second World War, dwarfing Vietnam and Korea.  There would be a real chance of escalation to nuclear exchanges from which U.S. cities might not be spared.  These risks must weigh very seriously in any policy debate.  It is hard to argue that they do not justify at least exploring the possibility of accommodation with China.

This brings us then to the second choice America faces – how far should the U.S. go in trying to accommodate China?  What kind of regional order, and how much Chinese influence, should Washington be willing to accept, as the price for avoiding rivalry and reducing the risk of conflict?   I think this question is relatively easy to answer in the abstract, but much harder to answer in detail.

Giving a broad answer must start with an understanding of what China might settle for.  It makes no sense to agree to explore some kind of accommodation with China unless we are willing to at least consider conceding enough to meet Beijing’s minimum demands.  My working hypothesis is that the least China will accept as a satisfactory basis for Asia’s strategic order over the next few decades is a position of equality with the U.S. – an equal sharing of power between the region’s strongest states.

To many Americans and others this will seem like a very big concession indeed, but I doubt it would look like that from China’s perspective.  I think most Chinese probably hope that as China overtakes the U.S. to become the world’s richest state they will take over from the U.S. as the sole leading power in Asia, and would be very disappointed to settle for mere equal status with America, and perhaps with other great powers as well.

In fact Beijing would only settle for this if it was absolutely clear that the U.S. and other Asian countries would actively oppose a Chinese bid for a larger role, entailing big costs and risks.  My hunch is that China would be willing to accept these costs and risks to gain equal status with the U.S., but not to gain primacy over the U.S.  So while we cannot be sure that China will settle for equality, we can be sure it will not settle for less.

Could America concede that much?  In The China Choice I conclude that U.S. core interests in Asia could be protected under this kind of order, because the U.S. would stay engaged in Asia and could constrain the way China used its power.  But allowing this much strategic space to China would nonetheless be very difficult politically for American leaders.  Indeed it would be unprecedented.  America has never dealt with another country in this way before.  On the other hand, America has never had to deal with a country as strong as China before, so it is perhaps inevitable that dealing with China will take America into new, uncharted and perhaps uncomfortable territory.

My book does not suggest that treating China as an equal would be easy for America.  It would be very hard, and America should only consider it if the consequences of not doing so were very grave.  My argument is that the consequences of rivalry with China are very grave indeed.

Finally, then, we have to explore in more detail how this kind of new order in Asia, built on a relationship of equality between the U.S. and China, could work.  This is a very hard question.  Any such order, if it could be constructed, would be uniquely shaped by the negotiations and understandings that brought it into being.  However, in my book I try to provide ideas about the form it might take by drawing an analogy between the kind of order that could emerge in Asia between a number of great powers of equal status and the Concert of Europe that evolved in the 19th century.  I think that offers a starting point for thinking about how it might function.

But how all this might work worries Rory Medcalf, and he raises several legitimate queries in his essay.  Let me touch on a few of them, starting with the question of “spheres of influence.”  I must say it worries me too, which is why I addressed it in the book.  Should we be willing, as part of a broader settlement, to concede to any of the great powers in a Concert of Asia, a “sphere of influence” in the old-fashioned sense of a privileged status in regard to a number of neighboring states?  My tentative conclusion – reached reluctantly – was that we might, as long as it did not infringe on the vital interests of other great powers in the system.

That might mean we could, reluctantly, accept spheres of influence to China and India on mainland Asia, but not over the Western Pacific where Japanese and American vital interests are at stake.  As their power grows this might be no more than accepting the inevitable.  Some will be shocked at this tolerance for such a 19th century concept, but what after all is America’s Monroe Doctrine, or Australia’s policy of strategic exclusion in the South West Pacific, but claims to spheres of influence?

Second, Rory worries about Japan.  So do I.  My hunch is that Japan and India, which I see as both being great powers in the Asian system, must join any Concert of Asia as full and equal members if it is to work.  As Rory notes, I accept the implication that this means Japan would have to emerge as a nuclear power.  Of course I agree that this would be immensely difficult both regionally and domestically.  I would welcome any suggestions about other ways in which Japan might fit into a new Asian order which did not require it either to remain a strategic client of America, become a strategic client of China, or become an independent nuclear power.  I can’t think of any, and so on balance I think it may be the least bad outcome.

Third, Rory worries about the fate of Asia’s middle and smaller powers if the great powers get together and organize the region between themselves. This too is a real problem.  But the point I make in the book is that it may be better than the alternative, even for the small and middle powers themselves.  The rests of us, including Australia, have to ask ourselves whether we would be better off with the great powers doing deals, or being rivals.  The old ASEAN joke has it that the ants get squashed whether the elephants fight or make love.  In fact, however, they get squashed much flatter when the elephants fight.

And finally, Rory wonders how this Concert could possibly come about.  The diplomacy seems impossibly difficult, and it will be something of a miracle if, somehow, this kind of order can be conjured into being.  The only reason to think it might happen is that the consequences of not doing so would be so disastrous for everyone.  Even so, I do not predict it will happen, I only hope it will.

Hugh White

Increasing Tension in the South China Sea

Since the start of August, Washington has found itself increasingly more involved in the territorial disputes of the South China Sea, be it intentional or otherwise, due to comments which have ruffled feathers within the Chinese government. The rising of the flag at Sansha municipality, on Yongxing island located within the disputed area some 200 miles from Hainan, equipped with its own military garrison, led to the U.S. State Department releasing a statement in which Beijing’s actions were singled out as being damaging to the stability of the region. On August 3, Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy spokesperson at the State Department said that the city and garrison “run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region.” The statement has since been followed by further comments from the State Department which risk straining Sino-American relations further. With China on the alert, believing that the U.S. has taken sides in the dispute, the need for clarity regarding U.S. policy within the region is now needed more than ever in order to prevent more forceful displays of assertiveness.

Patrick Ventrell had initially stated that the U.S. does “not take a position on the competing territorial claims and (has) no territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.” However, the criticism of Chinese actions over those of Vietnam or the Philippines, alongside the repeated claim that the U.S. has no territorial ambitions within the region, has been interpreted by the Chinese government as an explicit affront to China whereby the U.S. is seeking to contain China’s rise by apparently taking sides in the dispute. Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister, Zhang Kunsheng said the remarks “disregarded the facts, confused right with wrong, sent a seriously wrong signal and did not help with efforts by relevant parties to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea or the Asia Pacific”

On August 14, the U.S. State Department once again weighed in on the issue as part of a daily briefing by spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. Commenting on Under Secretary Wendy Sherman’s recent visit to Beijing, and in relation to Beijing’s preference for a bilateral approach to the territorial disputes in the area, Nuland stated, “if bilateral diplomacy can be supportive of an ultimate, multilateral framework, then that will be fine; but we don’t think that cutting deals with these countries individually is going to work, let alone be the expedient way or the best way under international law to get this done.”

Nuland spoke out against pursuing bilateral talks in an effort to “divide and conquer and end up with a competitive situation among the different claimants.” However, Nuland did not go as far as saying that the U.S. suspects China of carrying out such a strategy. Nonetheless, the comments from the State Department may have undermined Washington’s continued calls for a common consensus and a code of conduct based on the principles of international law, as China observers call foul and see the comments as evidence of tacit support for competing claimants.

China’s gripe comes from the fact that Vietnam has leased exploration blocks in contested waters, while the Philippines are attempting to do likewise; though America chose not to censure either nation publicly. Furthermore, state media reports have claimed that Beijing’s moves in relation to Sansha came in response to the actions of China’s neighbors, including a new law requiring all foreign ships passing through the disputed area to notify Vietnamese authorities. These claims seem to confirm what was said in a report published in July by the International Crisis Group (ICG), entitled “Stirring up the South China Sea: Regional Responses”. The report noted that, “Beijing has become more reactive, pushing back on perceived provocations to an extent that the other party loses some sort of control it had in the disputed area, while China claims that it did not trigger the incident.”

The fervently patriotic stance of the country’s press also adds fuel to the fire, as they have been keen to jump on the State Department’s comments in defense of China’s territorial claims, which in turn whips up nationalist sentiment among the population. The situation is being further intensified by the robust character of certain nations, emboldened by the presence of the U.S. within the region following its “pivot” towards Asia. The ICG report mentioned above alludes to this fact, noting that “China is not stoking tensions on its own. South East Asian claimants are now more forcefully defending their claims- and enlisting outside allies- with considerable energy.” Specifically, the report notes that “Vietnam and the Philippines in particular are seeking to increase their leverage over China by internationalizing the issue.” While China remains unhappy with the comments from the State Department, it is fair to say that officials within Vietnam and the Philippines will be welcoming this and further U.S. input on the issue.

Douglas H. Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that, “The overriding strategic objective of the United States in Asia is to manage China’s rise – which appears inevitable – in ways that do not diminish vital American interests in the region.” Paal goes on to state, “Judging from the outrage coming from China at being singled out, after Vietnam and the Philippines had taken steps without being criticized to secure resources in the contested seas before China’s own actions, the U.S. statement seems to be backfiring.”

China’s nine-dotted line lays claim to some 80 percent of the South China Sea, but has been dismissed by some observers due to the fact that the boundary is loosely defined and has been formulated and altered on the basis of historical assertions. Nonetheless, the recent U.S. input on the matter may have made the task of managing territorial claims even more difficult as the Chinese government will look to forge ahead with bilateral diplomacy rather than shifting towards an approach endorsed by the U.S. Douglas Paal has astutely pointed out that Asian societies are accustomed to living with unresolved disputes for centuries at a time. In light of this, Paal suggests, “The U.S. would do well to adhere to principled positions it has already articulated, and stand for a process that is fair to all disputants and those who will be affected at the margins.”

Commentaries on this issue all boil down to the notion that the pressure is constantly being ratcheted up, though the possibility of conflict remains low due to the fact that the losses which would result far outweigh any possible gains. Conflict would serve to damage trade between the nations involved, and from a Chinese perspective, it would also destroy the thesis of China’s peaceful rise while boosting support for the U.S. Unfortunately, it appears that the State Department’s comments will only serve to add more pressure to the growing levels of anxiety during an election year in which relations between America and China are set to be sorely tested as a result of electioneering tactics.

Representatives cast their votes in the first session of the first Sansha Municipal People’s Congress held on Yongxing Island, the government seat of Sansha City, in south China’s Hainan province, July 23, 2012. [Photo: Xinhua]

Stuart Wiggin

China Will Force Military Confrontation Over Disputed Islands

“War is imminent with the United States, Vietnam and the Philippines,” Chinese President and leader of the communist Party -Hu Jintao 2011

China’s construction of a military garrison in the West Philippine Sea (1) (also South China Sea) is an indicator that China will force a military confrontation in the area.

Possession of the islands would provide China with a much needed supply of petroleum. Warring over the islands, however, serves China in other ways as well.

With a declining economy and increasing popular unrest, the communist party needs an external force upon which to focus. A war in the West Philippine Sea is the perfect focal point for the regime in Beijing.

As the communists grip on control deteriorates, they will do whatever it takes to maintain power. By starting a war over ownership of the Paracel and Spratly Islands and/or Scarborough Shoal, the communists can deflect attention from their failings at home.

Disputed Islands

The West Philippine Sea (aka South China Sea) is dotted with islands which may be rich in oil.

Although the exact quantity of crude in the area has not been proven, estimates range from 28 billion to 213 billion barrels of oil2. If either estimate is correct, then the area would be one of the most oil rich areas on the planet.

The problem is that possession of these islands remains in dispute. Up to six nations including: Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines and China lay claim (3) to the geographic (4) region (5).

As China’s reliance on fuel rises, it has made a push to ‘invade’ territories of other claimants. Four of the six claimant countries base their ownership on international law, geological surveys and continental-shelf boundaries, the Chinese do not (6).

While those four countries are willing to go discuss the matter in court, the Chinese are not.

The Chinese cloak their right to ownership on the ‘nine dotted line (7)’, which was drawn up in 1947, before the founding of communist China.

war with china

Outdated Maps Used as Proof of Ownership

Aside from this, Beijing relies on maps drawn up several hundred years ago in the age of by-gone dynasties as proof of ownership of the land (8).

China’s belligerence in the issue is creating continued problems.

For the sake of brevity, I will use the Vietnamese claim as an example what a lawful claim to the islands consists of. Vietnam’s claim to its section of the islands is based upon the following:

A vietnamese map by Phan Huy Chu entitled “Dai Nam Nhat Thong Toan Do” mentioned the Spratlys under the name Van Ly Truong Sa as part of Vietnamese national territory

In 1852 France colonized the southern part of Vietnam, called Cochinchina.

In 1933 the Spratlys were “incorporated into the French colony of Cochinchina”. France took “official possession of the islands.”
Three French ships, the Alerte, Astrabale, and De Lanessa, visited the Spratlys and officially declared the following islands as French territory

Notice of occupation was made by France to interested countries on July 24 to September 25, 1933. Except for Japan, “no state xxx raised any protest.”

Three powers remained silent xxx: the United States (occupying the Philippines), China, and the Netherlands (then occupying Indonesia) xxx…. During the last War, France defended the Spratlys from Japanese military forces.

In the 1951 “San Francisco Peace Treaty” Japan relinquished all titles and claims to the Paracel Islands and the Spratlys Islands.

After the Japanese defeat in 1945, France “returned Cochinchina to Vietnam xxx.

In 1949, Vietnam “inherited” from France all former French rights over the Paracel Islands and the Spratlys Islands. (9)

China refuses to acknowledge such claims by any other nation state, calling them ridiculous (10).

war with china

This Will Not Be Just an Oil War

It is true that China now consumes more petroleum than any other country. It is also true that China is desperately seeking to shore up oil rights from Africa to Canada.

As a consequence, the islands would be an oil boom for the petroleum starved Chinese giant. Oil, however, is not China’s main reason to go to war in the area.

China will go to war to overshadow economic and political problems at home, and use a pre-emptive show of force to tilt the balance of power in the region.

By waging a military campaign, Beijing will refocus the growing discontent within the Chinese population upon ‘another foreign invasion’ of China’s ‘sovereign territory’.

China’s economy is not doing as well as it must in order to maintain a ‘harmonious society’.

Each year, China must create millions of new jobs just for the recent college graduates. In addition to this, China must create opportunities for the hundreds of millions of poor farmers who migrate to the major cities looking for jobs.

The global crisis has hurt Chinese exports, which have been the driver of the economic juggernaut. Coupled with this is a financial crisis of epic proportions which has led to a decline in the Chinese economy.

Beijing is aware that the legitimacy of the communists revolves around defending against foreign invaders and creating wealth. As the economy stagnates, the usefulness of the party comes into question.

The logical card for Beijing to play is to create a war in which the communist party can play an integral role (11).


References & Image Credits:
(1) Garrison in the Sansha Islands
(2) Reuters
(3) Sky News
(4) Parcel Spratly Islands
(5) Wikipedia 
(6) The Last Columnist
(7) Wikipedia 
(8) Reuters 
(9) Paracel Spratly Islands
(10) The Last Columnist
(11) The Chinese military reports directly to the communist party and operates in isolation from the people. The military was recently forced to re-pledge their loyalty to Beijing and the power of the party.
(12) Want China Times

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