FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Looming US-China Crisis in the South China Sea

The long-running, multi-party dispute over control of islets in the South China Sea (SCS) is worsening both in rhetoric and provocative activity. Meeting in late May at the Shangri-La Dialogue on regional security, US and Chinese defense officials sparred over responsibility for the increased tension, though they stopped short of issuing threats.  In fact, all sides to the dispute say they want to avoid violence, prefer a diplomatic resolution, and support freedom of navigation.

Both the US and China insist that the dispute notwithstanding, their relationship overall is positive and enduring.  But China, claiming indisputable sovereignty over the SCS, is backing its claim in ways that alarm the US and several Asian governments: construction of an air strip on the Spratly Islands, a land reclamation project that has artificially expanded its claimed territory, and most recently emplacement of two mobile artillery vehicles.

The Pentagon has responded by publicly discussing US options such as flyovers and navigation in Chinese-claimed air and sea space.  A US navy surveillance aircraft has already challenged China’s sovereignty claim by overflying Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, prompting a Chinese order (which the aircraft ignored) to leave the area.  In the meantime, US military assistance to other claimants, including Vietnam and the Philippines, has enabled their coast guards to at least keep an eye on Chinese activities.

The US-China debate over the SCS would be a tempest in a teapot were it not for two other sources of contention.  One is the gas and oil potential underneath the South China Sea, long subject to intense competition.  The other is the friction arising from the different US and Chinese strategic postures in East Asia.  The US deploys enormous air, naval, and nuclear power across the region. Rising China, one Chinese scholar writes, “is no longer susceptible to U.S. coercion or bullying. Under President Xi Jinping, the more confrontational stance Washington takes, the more assertive Beijing will become in response.”

The US “rebalancing” of forces in Asia since 2009, with emphasis on deploying additional naval power to the Pacific; its backing of Japan in Japan’s territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea; and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that aims to undercut China’s commercial as well as political success in Asia—these are among the US moves in Asia that have prompted Chinese pushback both economically and militarily.  China’s gradual buildup in the SCS should be seen as part of that pushback.  Its latest official strategy statement, issued (surely not coincidentally) on May 26, explicitly links “maritime military struggle” and “active defense” to the “provocative” actions and “meddling” of foreign parties in that area. The strategy statement conceives of a greatly increased role for the Chinese navy in “offshore waters defense.”

Although China’s declared position would seem to make the sovereignty issue nonnegotiable, that doesn’t rule out conflict management.  Ownership can be separated from, and thereby detached from, political and economic issues. All sides might agree, for instance, not to object to others’ sovereignty claims and to freeze the situation on the ground, disallowing further construction and land reclamation, entry of vessels and weapons, and introduction of civil or military personnel.

Crafting a binding code of conduct is an option that seems to have support from China and the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  They agreed on the current version of the code, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, in November 2002. It commits the parties to resolving disputes by peaceful means, without using threats or force and in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  The parties also “undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.” Unfortunately, what constitutes self-restraint and how actions would be handled constructively remain to be determined.  Instead, the concerned Southeast Asian nations rely on multilateral trust-building efforts to ease tensions, while the Chinese prefer bilateral talks and, it seems clear, unilateral actions to strengthen their claim.

More formal legal avenues might also be utilized despite China’s objections, including the Philippines case before UNCLOS and recourse to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).  The US  does not stand on firm ground, however, when it comes to international legal remedies.  First, the UNCLOS, as a treaty, has been awaiting Senate approval since 1994!  (Many, including Professor Jerome A. Cohen, a leading expert on international law, urge US ratification). Second, the US has a long record of ignoring adverse ICJ decisions. Third, since 1986, the US has rejected the court’s compulsory jurisdiction. The US could be a more effective actor here if it were more law-abiding—certainly more effective than by deploying forces to test China’s intentions.

All the parties, and especially Washington and Beijing, surely see the downside to continued tension, notably the retreat of US-China relations to Cold War-style tests of resolve. “Conflict is bad for business,” the new head of US Pacific forces is quoted as saying.  It’s bad for many other things too, but countries have gone to war over far lesser stakes when clashing notions of self-righteousness and national security prevail over common sense.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

More articles by:

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

March 19, 2019
Paul Street
Socialism Curiously Trumps Fascism in U.S. Political Threat Reporting
Jonah Raskin
Guy Standing on Anxiety, Anger and Alienation: an Interview About “The Pecariat”
Patrick Cockburn
The Brutal Legacy of Bloody Sunday is a Powerful Warning to Those Hoping to Save Brexit
Robert Fisk
Turning Algeria Into a Necrocracy
John Steppling
Day of Wrath
Robin Philpot
Truth, Freedom and Peace Will Prevail in Rwanda
Victor Grossman
Women Marchers and Absentees
Binoy Kampmark
The Dangers of Values: Brenton Tarrant, Fraser Anning and the Christchurch Shootings
Jeff Sher
Let Big Pharma Build the Wall
Jimmy Centeno
Venezuela Beneath the Skin of Imperialism
Jeffrey Sommers – Christopher Fons
Scott Walker’s Failure, Progressive Wisconsin’s Win: Milwaukee’s 2020 Democratic Party Convention
Steve Early
Time for Change at NewsGuild?
March 18, 2019
Scott Poynting
Terrorism Has No Religion
Ipek S. Burnett
Black Lives on Trial
John Feffer
The World’s Most Dangerous Divide
Paul Cochrane
On the Ground in Venezuela vs. the Media Spectacle
Dean Baker
The Fed and the 3.8 Percent Unemployment Rate
Thomas Knapp
Social Media Companies “Struggle” to Help Censors Keep us in the Dark
Binoy Kampmark
Death in New Zealand: The Christchurch Shootings
Mark Weisbrot
The Reality Behind Trump’s Venezuela Regime Change Coalition
Weekend Edition
March 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
Is Ilhan Omar Wrong…About Anything?
Kenn Orphan
Grieving in the Anthropocene
Jeffrey Kaye
On the Death of Guantanamo Detainee 10028
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
In Salinas, Puerto Rico, Vulnerable Americans Are Still Trapped in the Ruins Left by Hurricane Maria
Ben Debney
Christchurch, the White Victim Complex and Savage Capitalism
Eric Draitser
Did Dallas Police and Local Media Collude to Cover Up Terrorist Threats against Journalist Barrett Brown?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Straighten Up and Fly Right
Jack Rasmus
Trump’s $34 Trillion Deficit and Debt Bomb
David Rosen
America’s Puppet: Meet Juan Guaidó
Jason Hirthler
Annexing the Stars: Walcott, Rhodes, and Venezuela
Samantha M. - Angelica Perkins
Our Green New Deal
Mel Gurtov
Trump’s Nightmare Budget
Steven Colatrella
The 18th Brumaire of Just About Everybody: the Rise of Authoritarian Strongmen and How to Prevent and Reverse It
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Riding the Wild Bull of Nuclear Power
Michael K. Smith
Thirty Years Gone: Remembering “Cactus Ed”
Dean Baker
In Praise of Budget Deficits
Howard Lisnoff
Want Your Kids to Make it Big in the World of Elite Education in the U.S.?
Brian Cloughley
Trump’s Foreign Policy is Based on Confrontation and Malevolence
John W. Whitehead
Pity the Nation: War Spending is Bankrupting America
Priti Gulati Cox
“Maria! Maria! It Was Maria That Destroyed Us!” The Human Story
Missy Comley Beattie
On Our Knees
Mike Garrity – Carole King
A Landscape Lewis and Clark Would Recognize is Under Threat
Robert Fantina
The Media-Created Front Runners
Tom Clifford
Bloody Sunday and the Charging of Soldier F
Ron Jacobs
All the Livelong Day      
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail