28 October 2011

Beijing’s South China Sea Debate

Sarah Raine, Beijing’s South China Sea Debate,” Survival, 53:5 (2011): 69-88.

The three million square kilometres of the South China Sea are of particular strategic importance. Sovereignty over a plethora of small islands, atolls, rocks and coral reefs, including the two main island groupings of the Spratlys and the Paracels, is contested through overlapping claims by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. While China has, over the past two decades, made impressive overall progress towards improving relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours, mounting tensions over these competing claims threaten to undermine its charm offensive. Following the aggressive manoeuvres by five Chinese vessels against the US ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable in March 2009 in the South China Sea, developments in those waters have attracted greater diplomatic and press attention. Many observers see China’s behaviour in the South China Sea as symptomatic of an increasingly ‘assertive’ diplomacy. And despite the common interest of the littoral states of Southeast and East Asia in the security, stability and free transit of maritime commerce through the South China Sea, in practice they differ significantly over how these interests should be best protected, and by whom.

The sovereignty disputes are about more than simply who owns particular features. They involve major themes of grand strategy and territorial defence, including the protection of sea lines of communication, energy, food and environmental security. They may also be linked to rising populist nationalism. The stakes are too high for imminent resolution; the rulers of states with maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea are convinced that compromise is not in their national interest. Rather, they (along with states without claims and non-state actors, such as energy companies) focus not so much on dispute resolution as on dispute management, with the aim of preventing conflict and preserving freedom of navigation and over-flight.

The states with claims have belatedly recognised that the disputes are not being managed effectively. The non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed in November 2002 by China and the 10 ASEAN member states, committed parties to work towards adopting a legally binding code of conduct whilst exercising ‘self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes’. But while there has been no further occupation of disputed territory since the declaration was signed, the theoretical commitment to self-restraint has not put an end to unannounced and potentially provocative reinforcement of already occupied islands. While diplomats on all sides made increasingly vacuous reiterations of fealty to the weakening 2002 declaration, several states undertook unilateral military, bureaucratic and jurisdictional initiatives in the South China Sea, with the aim of changing the political and military dynamics of the disputed claims. China’s initiatives have been particularly prominent. China and ASEAN signed the Implementation Guidelines for the declaration in Bali in July 2011 as a step (albeit a small one) towards agreeing the code of conduct the declaration had promised. The guidelines, however, do little to bolster the effectiveness of the declaration, which remains non-binding.

Following the Impeccable incident, and against the backdrop of American concern over the nature of China’s military build-up, Washington has been paying increased attention to developments in the South China Sea. Though careful to reiterate its neutrality regarding sovereignty disputes, the United States has more assertively highlighted its interest in protecting the free transit of vessels, both commercial and military. Such passage is vital for America’s self-ascribed position as a resident power in Asia, for the credibility of its regional security umbrella, and for its ability to monitor Chinese military developments. Indeed, the US desire to retain this ability to monitor Chinese military advancements, including the developing Chinese naval base on Hainan, and the Chinese rejection of this right, is a major factor behind the rising tensions. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2009, the commander of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, argued that the Impeccable incident was a ‘troubling indicator that China, particularly in the South China Sea, is behaving in an aggressive and troublesome manner, and they’re not willing to abide by acceptable standards of behaviour or rules of the road’. In July 2009, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held hearings on ‘Maritime disputes and sovereignty issues in East Asia’ to monitor how these were impacting on the region and US interests there. In January 2010, the new commander of the Pacific Command, Admiral Robert F. Willard, highlighted to Congress how Chinese naval patrols in the South China Sea had shown an ‘increased willingness to confront regional nations on the high seas and within the contested island chains’. In February, the US–China Economic and Security Review Commission held an all-day hearing on China’s activities in Southeast Asia, with experts testifying about China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and advising that the United States needed to engage more with the region to protect its interests, including taking a more active interest in dispute management. Attention to and concern over China’s activities in these waters continued to grow through 2010. At the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in July 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the strongest and most direct public statement of US engagement on the issue to date, declaring that the United States had a ‘national interest’ in ‘open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea’. Calling for a ‘collaborative diplomatic process’, she highlighted US opposition to ‘the use or threat of force by any claimant’, a remark aimed primarily at China. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, present at the meeting, was clearly unhappy, making it plain in his response that Beijing strongly opposed any effort to ‘internationalise’ the issue. …