How Should the U.S. React to the South China Sea Dispute?
What is the South China Sea Dispute?
The South China Sea dispute is one of the most significant and intense territorial disputes in the world today. It first emerged after World War II when China, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia seeked to occupy islands in the South China Sea. As decades passed, the dispute became increasingly complicated as more nations, including the U.S., and various complicated factors came into play.
There are two forms of disputes occurring in the South China Sea. The first dispute is over territory. Nations including China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have territorial claims over various islands, rocks, and reefs around the South China Sea. The second dispute involves maritime boundaries. This dispute includes all territorial actors and Indonesia. The argument between these actors pertains to how to divide the sea itself. Each nation has different claims over different areas, and the major issue of the dispute is that these claims largely overlap with each other.
The South China Sea is seen as a valuable provider of a variety of resources. In 2015, the South China Sea has been accounted for 12% of the global fish catch, and home to more than half of the world's fishing vessels. These fisheries officially employ about 3.7 million people and many more unofficially. The South China Sea is estimated to be rich in oil and gas deposits as well, though there is no clear data on the matter. The area beneath the sea is potentially valuable, as it is an important energy supply corridor.
There are numerous territorial claims in the South China Sea. China and Vietnam have previously made and continue to make claims over the islands (including Scarborough, Paracels, and Spratly Islands) within the South China Sea, while Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Brunei have claims over the water surrounding the islands. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not abide by claims that violate the limits of a state's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The EEZ states that 200 nautical miles from the shoreline is exclusive area for a country's economic utilization. Countries in their exclusive economic zones have "sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources." Vietnam claims it has actively ruled over the Paracels and Spratly Islands since the 17th Century. The Philippines claim sovereignty in the Scarborough Shoal (or Huangyan Island in China), which is located 100 miles from the Philippines and 500 miles from China. Malaysia and Brunei claim territory that falls within their EEZs, as defined by UNCLOS. Malaysia additionally claims a small number of islands in the Spratlys.
One of the most important things to keep in mind about the South China Sea dispute is that much of the argument is over rocks and reefs rather than legally defined islands under international law. If a rock or reef legally becomes an island, it means that it would have its own EEZ. In order for a rock to be classified as an island, it must be able to sustain human life on it to engage in economic activity. A reef does not belong to anyone because it belongs to the sea bed. However, if a state has rights to a seabed, it is able to manipulate the reefs. Since 2015, China has been dumping sand and cement on numerous reefs to create man-made military bases on islands, in order to expand their sovereignty further into the South China Sea. China uses the "cabbage" strategy to layer on "civilian, paramilitary, and military protection" amongst the islands. The "salami-slicing" tactic additionally pertains to China slowly gaining control over land, sea, and air space in the East and South China Seas.
In the past, there have been many incidents where fishing boats and ships of opposing nations have sunk each other. Most recently, a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in March 2019. The fishing boat was sailing near the Paracel islands, which China has most control over, before the Chinese vessel pursued the fishing boat and shot at it with a water cannon. The fishing boat hit a rock and sank but the five fishermen were rescued by another Vietnamese fishing boat. The area in which the fishing boat sank is currently being disputed between China, Vietnam, and Taiwan, with each claiming that their sovereignty over the islands were violated by this incident. The cause of the incident is still not clear, with Vietnam claiming that the Chinese vessel rammed the boat.
China's claims in the South China Sea are largely historical. China has created the nine dash line, which was taken from a 1947 map. The nine dash line represents what China believes should be the boundary of its territory, which essentially encompasses most of the South China Sea. The nine dash line largely overlaps with the claims of Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei. China's reasoning for the nine-dash line is that Chinese fishermen have been active in that area for centuries. China believes that its historical claim over the islands and sea was established before the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), despite having ratified it. Therefore, China has been exerting "constant diplomatic pressure to either revise international law or gain a special exception to it, where China's ancestral claims would be recognized by all."
The Century of Humiliation, lasting from 1842 to 1949, was a time in China's history when the country was exploited and overpowered by western nations. The strive to overcome a period of history that, to China, symbolizes their weakness, has made the nation more assertive in the South China Sea. This includes expanding naval capabilities and using the man-made islands to build military bases on as an strategic advantage.
China's narratives say that the US is seeking to contain China as a rising power. It opposes the U.S.'s naval presence in the area, one of the reasons being that it is encouraging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to stand its ground on their claims and their opposition of China. China firmly believes that third parties, including the U.S., should not be involved in the dispute because it does not directly concern them.
The Obama Administration has previously stated that the U.S. has interest in the South China Sea and that nations should make claims on it as long as they abide by UNCLOS standards. The Obama Administration additionally made a commitment to "pivot" to Asia and strengthen allyship and security ties with ASEAN. It is an important "test of American leadership" to try to defend allies in the region amongst the growing aggression of China. The U.S. has stated that it will defend the Philippines in a potential clash against China; however, at the same time, the Philippines does not want to get dragged into a potential war between the U.S. and China. The U.S. rejects China's nine-dash line and its claims over the island, but because it does not have any interest in the islands, rocks, and reefs in the area, the U.S has verbally stood in a neutral position over the dispute. Currently, the Trump Administration doesn't seem to have a long-term strategy for the issue like Beijing does. Recent policies have tended to contradict each other, turning to isolationism because being the "policeman" of the world is too costly while simultaneously wanting a stronger military presence in the sea. As of now, there is no sense of direction due to conflicting statements.
On the other hand, the U.S. still seeks to patrol the sea because of its commitment to defending international law and the rights to sail freely within international waters. The South China Sea is also an important commercial trading route for the U.S. One of the US's strategies has been to promote Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP's) to reiterate the international law of the sea. This strategy, however, has been ineffective because it has intensely harshened China's salami-slicing or cabbage strategies instead of reducing them. The U.S. is in a tight spot because it doesn't want to further provoke China but at the same time does not want China to bully its allies. Because of this, the U.S. continues to patrol in the area.
What Should the U.S. Do?
The U.S. needs to act with a clear strategy in mind, because the South China Sea dispute will only evolve as time goes on. If the cards aren't played right, this dispute has the potential to turn into a full-fledged war. The U.S. needs to keep in mind that if it doesn't have a military presence in the South China Sea, then China will take advantage of it. If the U.S. shows that it is okay for China to make claims in an aggressive manner, China could be more likely to be aggressive in other territorial disputes such as Tibet.
On the other hand, how can the U.S's military presence in the region truly be justified? The U.S is not a direct player in the game, so increased patrolling of the sea (such as FONOPs) can make them look like an aggressor and will only allow for China to legitimize its militarization in the islands. The main mission of a FONOP is for the US to assert its power when it believes that other nations are restricting freedom of navigation and dismissing international law and norms. FONOPs are questionable because they have no real, detailed justification and sometimes are conducted by U.S. warships and bombers, which can make the operation look aggressive. There are also economic risks to consider, being that China is a significant trade partner to the U.S and the two states are currently engaged in a trade war. The U.S. can hold Beijing accountable by placing economic sanctions on trade and creating tighter restrictions on business between the two states, but this could also further provoke China.
In my opinion, it is in the best interest of the United States to keep its commitment to its partners and allies, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia. The U.S. must build up its maritime capacity building by providing equipment and support in sea surveillance and infrastructure support to coast guards. Additionally, the US should continue selling more military weapons to Taiwan or increase defense cooperation with India as an indirect way of helping. Helping allies in the region benefits nations to defend themselves against China's aggressiveness and helps balance the power rivalry. It is essential that the U.S. commits to multilateral institutions like ASEAN in the region to prevent a potential war with China. Whichever way the U.S. reacts, the aim should be to maintain peace within the region and promote negotiation, communication, and cooperation without interfering in a way that demonstrates aggression and western dominance.