Why the South China Sea is not a “Sudetenland Moment”

Posted on August 17, 2012


The United States must not take direct sides – and instead encourage peaceful negotiation – lest it make matters worse.

Maritime surveillance vessel Haixun 31 visits Singapore after a Chinese naval exercise in the South China Sea.

The rhetoric is growing hotter among China, most of its Southeast Asian neighbors, and the United States. Recently, theU.S. State Department took the unusual step of issuing a press statement that singled out Chinese behavior for criticism in creating a new administrative district covering most of the disputed islets in the South China Sea. Beijing’s media outlets have been responding with invective that is stoking already high emotions in the Chinese public. The issue of managing tensions and territorial claims that are inherently difficult to resolve has become more difficult, not less.

It was not apparently intended in Washington for the situation to deteriorate in this fashion. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out against unilateral actions in the South China Sea and for the development of an effective code of conduct to govern rivals’ activities in the area. This was widely understood to be a needed shove in China’s direction to quit stalling on agreeing to the code of conduct and to restrain the aggressive actions of its fishermen and oil drillers. It was accompanied by American professions of disinterest in the specific territorial disputes, but insistence on freedom of navigation in the heavily trafficked waters and peaceful resolution of the disputes under international law.

China did not like the American push then, at a time when Chinese diplomacy was scoring costly “own goals” in the East China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula. But by the end of 2010, China was trying harder to get along with its neighbors and Clinton’s warning seemed to have done well. More recently, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon made a trip to Beijing (and Tokyo) that was well received by Beijing’s highest leaders and seemed to put discussion of thorny issues on a high-policy plane. Coming right after his visit, the State Department statement must have arrived as a shock in Beijing.

The South China Sea presents complicated issues of evolving international law, historic but ill-defined claims, a rush to grab declining fish stocks, and competition to tap oil and gas reserves. Beijing’s much discussed “nine-dashed line,” that purports to give China a claim on about 80 percent of the South China Sea and its territories, used to be an eleven-dashed line. Two dashes separating Chinese and Vietnamese claims were resolved through bilateral negotiations years ago. This suggests that the remaining nine dashes are equally negotiable. But China rigidly refuses to clarify the basis for its claims, whether they are based on the accepted international law of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or the less widely accepted historical assertions. Beijing’s refusal to choose suggests it wants to maximize its legal and political leverage, even as the growth of its military and maritime assets gains physical leverage over its weaker neighbors.

Beijing is not alone. Hanoi has leased oil exploration blocks in contested waters, and Manila is trying the same. Their colonial occupations left a discontinuous record of historic claims, inclining them to rely more on UNCLOS to manage disputed resources. They eagerly encourage American weight thrown onto their side of the competition with China for free.

This is where the United States needs to move with caution and only after thinking many steps ahead. 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. Navigating the transition period peacefully requires strength and consistency as well as the recognition of changing realities. Severe tests of the Sino-American relationship are to be expected as the United States works to persuade China to accept the existing international rules and principles that have brought prolonged peace, stability, and prosperity to the participants, especially China.

China’s immediate neighbors are by definition weaker than the much larger People’s Republic. Beijing’s temptations to exploit that differential in power needs to be resisted with policies that reward positive behavior and raise the cost of negative behavior.

It was likely such a calculus that led to last week’s State Department warning to Beijing. Many in Washington resented China’s strong-arm tactics at the recent ASEAN Regional Forum meeting that prevented the issuance of a communiqué from the annual gathering for the first time in forty-five years, explicitly due to disputes about the South China Sea. Moreover, China has increased its naval deployments and added to its various civilian fleets operating in the sea. China’s announcement of the creation of Sansha municipality and its sister military garrison in the disputed area seemed to push Washington’s patience past its limits. One can imagine U.S. officials arguing that aggressive People’s Liberation Army officers and other Chinese nationalists need to be taught that their policies are counterproductive.

The test for such an initiative by the United States is whether it is effective in reaching its main strategic goal. 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 sea before China’s own actions, the U.S. statement seems to be backfiring.

Just weeks before the recent upswing in tensions, the Obama administration had successfully hosted a visit by Philippines President Benigno S. Aquino III that Manila had hoped would bring Washington more closely in line behind Philippine claims. Obama gently let Aquino know that Washington’s support for the alliance is strong and growing, but that South China Sea claims are for Manila to handle alone or together with the other claimants. The United States will provide support for principled negotiations and a peaceful resolution, but not specific outcomes.

Now, by singling Beijing out for criticism, but not the others, Chinese observers believe the United States has taken sides against China. This has undermined the U.S. assertions of a principled approach based on international law by appearing not to be impartial.

U.S. direct interests in the South China Sea are not unlimited. The United States has no territorial claims on the minuscule land features there. American firms and citizens are not now at risk. Freedom of navigation is paramount, and China has a minority view under UNCLOS of what constitutes legitimate activity by naval vessels in its exclusive economic zones, which it claims for most of the South China Sea. There is a constant risk of American intelligence collection activity crashing into China’s insistence on the right to deny such activity. So far, this potential source of friction is being managed through political leadership by both sides, in the interest of preventing serious incidents and a deterioration of the overall U.S.-China relationship.

In view of the potential disruptive effects brought about by China’s rise and its neighbors’ responses, the United States has a further interest in a peaceful settlement. Moreover, reinforcement of the rule of international law is in America’s interest in reducing the cost of maintaining stability and managing change going forward.

Today, the South China Sea is not at the “Sudetenland” moment of the twenty-first century, which calls for standing up to aggression and the rejection of appeasement. China has not militarized its foreign policy and does not appear equipped to do so for a long time. Its neighbors are not supine, and they show on occasion, when needed, that they are able to coalesce against Chinese actions that they judge as going too far. At the same time, China and those neighbors have more going constructively in trade, investment, and other relations with each other than is at risk in this dispute.

This suggests the makings of a manageable situation, even if it remains impossible to resolve for years to come. Different Asian societies are quite accustomed to living with unresolved disputes, often for centuries.

In light of this reality, the United States 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. To do that, Washington will need to protect its position of impartiality and avoid repetition of the misconceived State Department press statement.

Related Features

Douglas H. Paal 

China’s maritime expansion could go beyond Taiwan: experts

A special forces team on a Chinese military vessel. (Photo/Xinhua)

China’s maritime power is expected to expand to the South China Sea, beyond Taiwan and as far as Africa as the country’s development progresses, US military experts said recently.

The current analysis on China’s naval power goes beyond the Taiwan issue, and discussions on the South China Sea and Africa have become more important, said Daniel Hartnett, a China analyst of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Several key concerns about China’s naval expansion are economic interests, territorial integrity, national defense and protection of the interests of overseas Chinese, Hartnett said in a March 12 forum held by Johns Hopkins University, according to a Voice of America report published Tuesday on its Chinese-language website.

Taiwan is the one single issue that might lead to a war between China and the US, said Michael McDevitt, vice president and director of the Center for Strategic Studies, a division of the Center for Naval Analyses.

However, the two powers need not be hostile toward each other because of Taiwan and things could work out peacefully, added the retired rear admiral.

Besides Taiwan, the much disputed Diaoyu islands — claimed by Taiwan, China and Japan — could also trigger conflict between Beijing and Washington, although the chances of that remain low, according to Hartnett.

The Asia-Pacific strategy of the Obama administration is “surveillance,” which means the US will not greatly increase forces in the region but will maintain sufficient ability to monitor the situation there, said Eric McVadon, a former US defense and naval attache at the US embassy in Beijing.

The submarines and aircraft carriers China is developing indicate that it aims to expand its naval power to seas beyond Taiwan, McDevitt said.

Chinese aircraft carriers still lag behind the US both in terms of hardware and linking between the armed forces, said Peter Swartz, an analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses.


U.S. Asia pivot fuels conflict with China

Ministers from Viet Nam and the Philippines protested China’s maritime policy on the South China Sea, claiming Chinese harassment of their vessels. China’s recent upgrade of naval ships and anti-ship missiles concerns the U.S. as well, as conflict builds between competing territorial stakeholders over the control of oil deposits beneath the sea, where oil giants Exxon Mobil, Talisman Energy and Forum Energy Pic have standing exploration agreements.

Recent U.S. statements claiming China is militarizing the South China Sea have brought bitter responses from the Chinese. The Chinese say that it is the Obama “Asia pivot” policy that has vastly increased the U.S. military presence in the entire region.

Tension is rising between a number of Asian countries and China. Much of the tension arises because of competing claims to several chains of islands which have valuable resources in adjoining sea beds. The area also has high traffic sea lanes. Vietnam and the Philippines have been in conflict with China in some of these disputed islands.

Douglas Paal from the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace said

:“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 sea before China’s own actions, the US statement seems to be backfiring..China has not militarized its foreign policy and does not appear equipped to do so for a long time, while US allies Vietnam and the Philippines eagerly encourage American weight thrown onto their side of the competition with China for free.”

The U.S. help is not exactly free. In the case of the Philippines at least there are agreements for more joint exercises and the continued presence of more U.S. troops in the Philippines. In fact the U.S. is using the Philippines and Vietnam as proxies to help confront and control expanding Chinese power. Support for Vietnamese and Filipino claims complicates the situation for the U.S. There are several countries other than China that have claims and these claims often themselves conflict. Even more worrisome is the fact that the U.S. has a Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines. If there is a military conflict between China and the Philippines the U.S. would have an obligation to intervene to protect the Philippines.The support of Vietnamese and Filipino claims against China is just a small part of Obama’s “Asia pivot”.

This new policy will see U.S. military forces increase their presence throughout the western Asia pacific region. U.S. military presence will be expanded in the Philippines, Guam, Australia, Japan, and South Korea among other places As a result of these moves China may have already decided that it must respond to this U.S. military challenge. A report from the Center for Strategic International Studies notes:

“Signs of a potential harsh reaction are already detectable…The US Asia pivot has triggered an outpouring of anti-American sentiment in China that will increase pressure on China’s incoming leadership to stand up to the United States. Nationalistic voices are calling for military countermeasures to the bolstering of America’s military posture in the region and the new US defense strategic guidelines.”

Not all the disputes are between China and other countries. There are disputes as well between Japan and South Korea about ownership of islands. Both China and Japan are anxious to claim areas that might have oil resources to feed their growing energy needs.

Attempts to negotiate an agreement on these many conflicts have so far achieved virtually nothing. However, as the appended video argues it is in the interest of all the competing countries to work out an agreement to share resources rather than resort to a buildup of military power and an arms race that could end in disaster for everyone.

The U.S. is already facing huge financial problems. Expanding its global empire of military bases can only increase U.S. debt load. Global capital no doubt would prefer more trade and economic expansion. Many global companies produce in China and export to China. A war between China and the U.S. is hardly in their interest in the short term at least.

Ken Hanly

Through the Chinese looking glass

Behind the Pacific pivot lies an economic motivation, particularly in the South China Sea. Nearly $1.2 billion of U.S trade traverses the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans through the South China Sea. In terms of global trade, 90 percent of all commercial goods are shipped from one continent to another. Of this nearly half of all gross tonnage and one-third of all monetary value is sent through the South China Sea.

The United States’ high-profile “return” to Asia has attracted much international attention recently.

The true intentions of America’s “pivot” to Asia are still open to debate but one thing is clear: China looms large in America’s strategic thinking.

It would be naive to think that the US pivot to Asia is not aimed at China. However, a strong US presence in Asia is not necessarily inimical to China’s interests.

If it contributes to regional peace and prosperity, China will welcome US rebalancing towards Asia. But, if the US is here to contain China, then conflicts lie ahead between the two powers.

While China’s reaction to the US return to Asia has been moderate so far, it does have serious concerns about Washington’s interference in regional affairs, with the South China Sea dispute being the latest issue to emerge as a thorn in their bilateral relations.


First, the US involvement in the South China Sea may have complicated the dispute. For example, the US has strengthened military and security ties with the Philippines and Vietnam.

The US has repeatedly stated that it takes no position regarding the sovereignty of South China Sea islands – yet American officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have vowed that the US would stand by the Philippines. Washington has also held joint military exercises with Manila.

Such conflicting messages may create misunderstanding, and the Philippines or Vietnam may feel emboldened to be more confrontational towards China.

Second, the US participation in South-east Asian affairs may have also helped create divisions within ASEAN. The recently-ended ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh failed to issue a joint communique on the dispute.

Mrs Clinton had wanted to discuss the South China Sea conflict as a major issue at the summit. However, due to China’s enormous influence, countries like Cambodia and Laos did not feel it appropriate to portray the dispute in a way that may offend China.

The unity of ASEAN as a group was being challenged not only due to a lack of consensus on the issue but also because of regional countries’ concerns over a potential US-China showdown on the issue.


Third, Beijing accuses Washington of practising “selective blindness” in criticising China’s establishment of Sansha City while remaining silent on provocative acts by Vietnam and the Philippines.

A US Department of State spokesman said on Aug 3 that China’s new Sansha City and military garrison in the Paracel Islands “run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region”.

Yet, the US government turned a blind eye to earlier provocations such as Vietnam’s June passage of its Maritime Law declaring sovereignty and jurisdiction over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, and the Philippines’ July 31 opening of bid for exploration of three oil and gas blocks in the disputed South China Sea, which Manila prefers to call West Philippine Sea.

Asia still suffers from the classic “security dilemma”- a situation in which actions by a state intended to heighten its security, such as increasing its military strength or making alliances, can lead other states to respond with similar measures, producing increased tensions that create conflict – even when no side really desires it.

To a large extent, the disputes in the South China Sea are aggravated by such action-reaction cycle. China’s establishment of Sansha has generated much negative international media coverage. Yet from China’s perspective, the city was established to defend China’s national interests and to counter earlier assertiveness by Vietnam and the Philippines.


As the global economic and political gravity shifts to Asia-Pacific, it is only natural for the US to rectify its policy of the past decade and pay more attention to the region now. However, it is questionable whether the US can fulfil all its promises to regional countries.

The US Budget Control Act of 2011 mandates reductions in federal spending, including defence spending, in order to focus on economic recovery at home. The US’ scaled-back defence budget will shrink Pentagon spending by US$487 billion (S$610 billion) over the next decade. One wonders how the US government can implement and sustain its new Asia strategy.

As for China, its “good neighbour diplomacy” had worked well throughout the 1990s and it is now the largest trading partner of almost every country in East Asia. Yet, most of these countries do not identify with China politically and are actually seeking security protection from the US.

China has to address this anomaly in its foreign relations. Some countries in Asia feel uneasy about the rise of China as a major power. Many welcome a strong US presence as a security guarantor; at the same time, they do not wish to disrupt their robust economic and political relations with China.

The last thing regional countries want is to be forced to take sides in a potential US-China conflict. So they also face a dilemma: How to maintain good relations with both powers without creating conflicts between them?


The US rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific will not change the fundamental nature of the US-China relationship, which is marked by both cooperation and competition.

The two powers are candid about their differences and have chosen to cooperate on many international and regional issues. The US and China are unlikely to fight over the South China Sea since their overall relationship is much more important for both powers than some uninhabited islands.

As a Chinese saying goes, close neighbours are dearer than distant relatives. This is true for both China and South-east Asian countries. The US is a global power and traditionally also an Asian power. It has never really “left” Asia and is here to stay.

But at the end of the day, it is up to China and South-east Asian countries themselves to manage the South China Sea problem and move on to the next level of friendly coexistence and cooperation. Bickering over sovereignty is a fruitless political game in an increasingly interdependent world.

China and its South-east Asian neighbours must all act prudently and focus on enhancing mutual trust and bolstering economic cooperation.

Zhu Zhiqun

Beijing considers stronger foreign ties

When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last month failed to agree a joint position on the South China Sea, the disputed waters contested by several of its members and China, many observers lamented the organisation’s weakness.

But in Beijing, the outcome was quietly celebrated as a success for its new foreign policy strategy as China seeks to use key allies to push through its own interests in the region.

Cambodia, which this year chairs the 10-nation Asean group, blocked an attempt by the Philippines and Vietnam to include a reference in the summit communiqué to a recent stand-off with China in the South China Sea.

“We co-ordinated very well with Cambodia in that case and . . . prevented an incident which would have been detrimental to China,” says Chen Xiangyang, a foreign policy expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

Analysts say Cambodia’s move to do China’s bidding is a glimpse of things to come as Beijing seeks to build foreign policy alliances it long eschewed. Deterred from such alliances by the collapse of its pact with the Soviet Union in 1961, China decided in 1982, when it started opening up after more than a decade of self-imposed isolation during the cultural revolution, that it should follow a strict policy of non-alignment.

But following the 2008 financial crisis, the Arab Spring and the growing US push to reassert its presence in Asia, this strategy is increasingly being challenged at home.

“The situation in China’s backyard has become more complicated, and there is a feeling that things are running out of control,” says Mr Chen. “Following the increase in Chinese power, we will need more friends. Otherwise we run the risk of isolation.”

Some Chinese scholars believe Beijing has already started watering down its traditional non-alignment dogma.

The country distinguishes between “strategic relationships” – a title it is happy to attach to any ties that the other side wants to give more weight to – and “special relationships”. China has long pursued a small number of special relationships, including a friendship treaty with North Korea, close ties with Pakistan that include anti-terrorism and military co-operation, and a strong partnership with Cambodia.

China has also cultivated friends such as Iran and Sudan, but Chinese foreign policy experts say these relationships are mainly driven by economic interests such as securing resources and could never become part of a Chinese alliance system.

In contrast, Beijing is experimenting with broadening and strengthening its ties in Asia into relationships that could become building blocs for an alliance. Analysts point to China’s role as a big aid donor and investor in Cambodia and Phnom Penh’s increasing co-operation with Beijing. It arrested Patrick Devillers, a Frenchman whom Chinese authorities wanted to question in connection with the scandal surrounding disgraced politician Bo Xilai. In 2009, Cambodia extradited 20 Uighur refugees to China whom Beijing suspected of involvement in sectarian violence in its restive western region of Xinjiang.

There were recriminations over Cambodia’s role at the the Asean meeting with some accusing China of intervening too forcefully in the group’s politics. But in recent days officials from the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand have sought to draw a line under the events in Phnom Penh saying that long-term relations with Beijing are more important.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of international relations at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, says China knows it has the power to influence Asean countries and that a more engaged role by the US in the region is also causing friction within the group.

“The rebalancing [of the US in Asia] means certain Asean members can rely on the new US posture to hedge and leverage vis-a-vis China . . . In short, current internal Asean rifts are attributable not just to China’s assertive rise but also the US’ vigorous re-engagement.”

China’s relationship with Russia is also undergoing a major change. Chinese diplomats say the escalating crisis in Syria has pushed the countries much closer. Beijing and Moscow have jointly voted down three UN Security Council resolutions on Syria against a closed front of other countries.

“In the past, we happened to take the same position in the UN Security Council in some cases, but that was just because our national interests just happened to overlap, and there were other countries sharing our views, like in the Iraq case,” said one diplomat. “Now we have been pushed into a quasi-alliance.”

Some experts who advise Beijing also argue that China should do more to build ad hoc alliances with the other Brics – Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa – around certain topics where the big emerging markets have common interests. But many Chinese foreign policy experts say such experiments fall far short of what is needed.

Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University who has been one of the fiercest critics of non-alignment, says Beijing must completely abandon the dogma and replace it with a web of military alliances reaching from North Korea all the way down to Sri Lanka.

“We live in an international order dominated by the US’ military alliances,” he said. “China is not offering its neighbours security guarantees, so as China is rising, fears are emerging among them as to what our intentions might be.”

Some Chinese scholars believe the country has the building blocs in place for an extensive alliance system of its own. The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a body co-founded by Beijing which includes Russia as well as several central Asian states, could be part of it in addition to North Korea, Myanmar, Cambodia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Such ideas have the potential to deepen unease, especially in India which has long feared strategic encirclement by China. Beijing has repeatedly denied such intentions. But Pakistan and Sri Lanka have large ports that could be used for military purposes, and the prospect that the Chinese navy could be given regular access to them is feeding those fears.

Chinese analysts believe that signs of opening-up in some of the more unsavoury countries Beijing counts as friends could even speed up the process of building an alliance network.

Kim Jong-eun, North Korea’s new ruler, set up an economic reform group in his ruling party last month, feeding expectations that he might start Chinese-style economic reforms. “Both Myanmar and North Korea are seeking reform and opening,” says Mr Yan. “They are following China’s path. That would make them more suitable as real allies for us.”

Kathrin Hille

Why tensions will persist, but not escalate, in the South China Sea

The South China Sea is first and foremost a question of sovereignty for Beijing. But with economic interests also at play, there are compelling arguments for China to defend its interests aggressively. China’s oil companies want to unlock the sea’s potential oil and gas resources. Civilian maritime authorities seek to defend fishing grounds as coastal waters become depleted. The Chinese navy uses maritime tensions to push for a greater piece of the budget pie. Strategic thinkers and hawks want to send a clear signal to their neighbours – and to domestic public opinion – that China’s interests are not up for negotiation. Indeed, with Manila and Hanoi emboldened by Washington’s “pivot” to Asia, Beijing feels compelled to respond forcefully when its neighbours pull the US even closer into China’s stomping ground.

Events over the last few months have led to heightened tensions and have made the South China Sea one of Asia’s hottest spots. In April, the standoff between China and the Philippines around Scarborough Shoal sent shock waves throughout the region. In June and July, oil and gas companies were invited by both China and Vietnam to tender for blocks in contested areas, adding a thick layer of political risk to their commercial activities. And most recently, China’s establishment of a new administrative district and a new military garrison on an island in the Paracels soured Beijing’s ties with Washington.

These tensions are likely to persist. And Beijing is not alone in perpetuating them. Vietnam and the Philippines, concerned with the shifting balance of powers in the region, are pushing their maritime claims more aggressively and increasing their efforts to internationalise the question by involving both ASEAN and Washington. Attempts to come up with a common position in ASEAN have failed miserably but as the US re-engages Asia, it is drawn into the troubled waters of the South China Sea.

Political dynamics in China – with a once in a decade leadership transition coming up, combined with electoral politics in the US and domestic constraints for both Manila and Hanoi – all augur that the South China Sea will remain turbulent. No government can afford to appear weak in the eyes of domestic hawks or of increasingly nationalistic public opinions. The risk of a miscalculation resulting in prolonged standoffs or skirmishes is therefore higher now than ever before. But there are a number of reasons to believe that even these skirmishes are unlikely to escalate into broader conflict.

First, despite the strong current of assertive forces within China, cooler heads are ultimately likely to prevail. While a conciliatory stance toward other claimants is unlikely before the leadership transition, China’s top brass will be equally reluctant to significantly escalate the situation, since this will send southeast Asian governments running to Washington. Hanoi and Manila also recognize that despite their need for assertiveness to appease domestic political constituencies, a direct confrontation with China is overly risky.

Second, military pundits in China also realize that the cost of conflict is too high, since it will strengthen Washington’s presence in the region and disrupt trade flows. And even China’s oil company CNOOC, whose portfolio of assets relies heavily on the South China Sea, is diversifying its interests in other deepwater plays elsewhere, as its attempted takeover of Nexen demonstrates.

An uneasy balance and a highly volatile region remain, therefore, the best policy option for all sides involved.

Michal Meidan

Posted in: Politics