FPI Analysis: America’s Stabilizing Role in the South China Sea Conflict

September 4, 2012

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels through the Asia-Pacific region for a series of high-level meetings, tensions over the South China Sea, as well as other territorial and maritime disputes, remain a major topic of discussion.  Indeed, Secretary Clinton’s visit to the region—which includes stops in Brunei, China, and Indonesia, as well as the first-ever visit by a Secretary of State to Timor-Leste—comes several weeks after Beijing announced that Sansha, a small town in one of the South China Sea’s disputed island chains, will become China’s newest city, with plans to garrison Chinese military forces there. 

Although Beijing’s announcement received little notice in the West, it sent shockwaves throughout the region, alarming many of the member states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) who worry about the rising great power’s long-term ambitions with regard to the sea.  Secretary Clinton’s trip thus gives the United States a critical opportunity to signal to the wider region that it intends to continue playing an active, positive, and long-term role in encouraging all rival claimants to constructively resolve the region’s complex web of territorial and maritime ownership disputes—not only in the South China Sea, but also in the East China Sea and elsewhere.

The South China Sea’s Complex Web of Disputes

China, along with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, assert overlapping territorial claims over two archipelagos in the sea—namely, the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.  Moreover, China’s maritime claims, which cover practically the entire sea, clash with the comparatively modest claims of those three states, as well as Indonesia and Brunei.

There’s a great deal at stake in the South China Sea.  For one, rival claimants use their respective territorial and maritime assertions to support competing legal arguments for exploiting the sea’s rich fishing waters, and exploring the vast oil and natural gas resources believed to be below the seabed.  Indeed, the seabed could hold well over 200 billion barrels in unproven oil reserves.  (In comparison, Saudi Arabia now has roughly 265 billion barrels in proven oil reserves.)

For another, the South China Sea is itself strategically and economically valuable as one of the world’s busiest maritime shipping lanes.  With over half of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage passing through its waters, the sea enables the flow of crude oil, natural gas, raw materials, and other goods from the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean to countries in Northeast and Southeast Asia and beyond.

Opportunities and Risks in the South China Sea

Given all that’s at stake in the South China Sea conflict, ASEAN’s rival claimants are keen to secure a stable and durable status quo, especially in the face of China’s growing diplomatic, economic, and military power.  That’s why ASEAN had worked hard to persuade China to sign a non-binding joint declaration in November 2002, in which all signatories affirmed their long-term desire to work towards concluding a binding code of conduct with regard to the sea’s territorial and maritime disputes.

Progress on a code of conduct for the South China Sea has stalled, however.  To begin with, China has generally balked at multilaterally addressing the sea’s disputes, instead preferring to deal with the rival claimants in a more advantageous one-one-one matter—in what one might call a “divide-and-eventually-conquer” approach.  But to further complicate matters, it has recently resumed a more confrontational tone and posture towards its maritime and territorial claims in the sea. 

China’s absorption of the city of Sansha is only the latest in a long line of provocative incidents.  In January 1974, Beijing deployed military units and seized control of the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam, after accusing the navy of its ally-at-the-time of harassing Chinese fishing boats in the archipelago’s waters.  In January 1988, it sent troops and ships to occupy certain small islands and reefs in the Spratly archipelago.  Two months later, Chinese and Vietnamese naval vessels clashed, leading Vietnam to lose several ships and suffer over 70 casualties.  Then, in February 1995, the Philippines discovered that China had quietly moved troops further into the Spratly Islands, and began building structures on the Mischief Reef.

More recently, Beijing has begun once again to send Chinese fishing boats and loosely-regulated civilian patrol ships into the South China Sea’s contested waters.  That has helped create the conditions for tense standoffs with Filipino coast guard vessels near the contested Scarborough Shoal that lies between the Paracel Islands and the northwest coast of the Philippines.

What’s also problematic is that ASEAN member states remain divided on pressuring China to multilaterally engage in talks towards a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea.  Such divisions prevented member states from issuing a joint final statement during ASEAN’s July 2012 ministerial discussions in Cambodia—the first time a ministerial meeting has failed to issue such a statement since ASEAN’s founding in 1967.

America’s Stabilizing Potential in the South China Sea

China’s increasingly assertive tone and posture in the South China Sea conflict affects America’s security and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region.  For one, the sea’s shipping lanes are critically important to the United States.  Over $1 trillion in U.S. trade flows through the sea.  Indeed, the forward deployment of U.S. Naval forces, such as the Seventh Fleet, in the Asia-Pacific helps to ensure and protect the continued flow of that trade.

For another, while Washington may not be a direct claimant in the South China Sea’s maritime and territorial disputes, many of its regional partners and treaty allies are claimants—and they look to the United States as a pillar of security and stability in the region.  A serious and protracted military clash between or among claimants in the sea could damage the regional and global economy, and potentially invoke America’s mutual defense treaty obligations to the Philippines and shared security interests with other regional partners.

As an integral part of America’s “rebalance” towards the Asia-Pacific region, Washington should therefore more publicly support efforts to get China and ASEAN to engage and conclude a binding code of conduct over the South China Sea.  In addition, the United States should continue to encourage rival claimants to explore various options for joint development of the sea’s hydrocarbon and food resources, with the aim of moving the various maritime and territorial disputes further away from a zero-sum situation.

At the same time, the United States should also hedge against the danger of flare-ups in the South China Sea, and continue efforts to help build up the defensive deterrent capabilities of its strategic partners in the Asia-Pacific region, especially its longtime treaty ally, the Philippines.  Washington’s plans to help Manila establish National Coast Watch Centers are an important development.  As part of that effort, the Philippines—which has signaled openness to a rotational presence of U.S. Armed Forces in the country—needs assistance not only in acquiring land-based radar and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities that can improve its situational awareness of its coastlines, but also in establishing a more modern navy and coast guard.

In addition, the United States also should firmly encourage its strong and longstanding allies, Japan and Korea, to privately and respectfully smooth over their dispute over islets that lie between them.  Recent weeks have seen public expressions of pique between the two countries over this comparatively minor territorial disagreement.  Washington should stress that ensuring security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region is a collective and long-term effort, one that will require a critical level of unity among the United States, Korea and Japan, and other democracies in the region.  Divisions risk encouraging others in the region to exploit these differences to advance their own agendas.

Finally, both policymakers in the Executive Branch and lawmakers on Capitol Hill should quickly and responsibly reverse looming “sequestration” cuts to U.S. national defense spending that threaten to slash another $500 billion—on top of the $487 billion in 10-year military cuts that President Obama already submitted in his February 2012 budget proposal to Congress.  Indeed, sequestration is causing Washington’s partners and allies in the Asia-Pacific to worry about America’s long-term commitment and staying power in the region.


The United States has the potential to play a proactive and positive role in helping rival claimants not only to maintain security and stability in the strategically and economically important South China Sea, but also to progress towards a more binding code of conduct and a regionally-beneficial joint development of the sea’s vast resources. 

At a July 2010 meeting of ASEAN, Secretary Clinton stood up to a Chinese official who threatened others in the region by saying that “China is a big country, and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”  At the time, she stated that access to the South China Sea was in America’s “national interest.”  U.S. actions since then have failed to assuage the concerns of our longstanding allies and emerging partners.  Secretary Clinton can—and should—use her visit to the Asia-Pacific region to follow through on her statement from 2010, and make clear that the United States remains committed to playing a role in ensuring that the South China Sea remains accessible to all.

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