FPI Bulletin: Next Steps in the South China Sea

July 20, 2016

One week after an international tribunal dismissed China’s claim to a vast swath of the South China Sea as having “no legal basis,” Beijing announced military exercises and began flying combat patrols over the disputed waters.

In the context of China’s record of asserting its claims via force, this counts as a relatively restrained response, and one that will likely last through the summer as Beijing seeks to navigate a series of international summits without further harming its reputation. During this interval, the United States should move swiftly to coordinate an international campaign to deter China from taking more aggressive steps later this year.

One of the most aggressive courses that China could pursue would be to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, similar to the one it declared in 2013 over the East China Sea, including over the disputed Senkaku Islands that are administered by Japan. Especially in light of Beijing’s deployment of surface-to-air missiles to the South China Sea, it would be difficult for civil aviation to ignore Chinese demands for compliance, as some carriers have been forced to do in response to its previous ADIZ.

In addition, China may seek build an artificial island on Scarborough Shoal, which it could use to establish a military base just 130 miles west of Subic Bay in the Philippines. It was a dispute over this shoal that initially prompted Manila to seek arbitration in The Hague, and an airbase there would enable China to patrol the entirety of the skies over the South China Sea.

What seems to be holding China back for the moment is the spotlight on its behavior being cast by a series of international meetings, beginning with a summit of Asian and European leaders held shortly after the decision was announced. China will also host the G-20 Summit in early September before participating in the East Asia Summit in Laos. The month of September will conclude with the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

At these meetings, it is likely that China will engage in diplomatic sparring similar to that seen at the Asia-Europe Meeting in Mongolia over the weekend, where China’s leaders defeated a Japanese-led effort to address the South China Sea in the conference’s final statement.

China also chalked up a modest win in its bilateral meetings with EU leaders. Despite reports that the European Union would directly call on China to respect the decision from The Hague, the EU High Representative instead issued a statement last week that did not mention China by name. At the G-20, Beijing will leverage its role as host to deter any further condemnations. At the East Asian Summit, it will enjoy the advantages of friendly hosts, as Laos’s prime minister has already voiced his support for China’s position.

If China emerges unscathed from these summit meetings, it will be well placed by later this year to escalate its military efforts in the South China Sea without the risk of condemnation at a major international meeting.

Rather than allow Beijing the time and space to escalate its intimidation campaign, the Obama administration should take immediate steps to further assert its commitment to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as well as the interests of its allies and security partners in the region.

First and foremost, the U.S. Navy and Air Force should expand the scale and scope of its ongoing freedom of navigation exercises to reinforce in practice the decision of the arbitral panel. As Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) has suggested, these operations should specifically focus on areas over which the panel ruled the Chinese government has no justified territorial claims, such as the vicinity of Mischief Reef. These operations will be most effective if additional allies from the region and as far afield as Europe participate.

The administration should also work to expand defense cooperation with its partners in the region. The Philippines remains woefully underequipped to press its claims against China, and the administration’s Maritime Security Initiative is too modest in scope, with an annual average of less than $100 million dedicated to building partner capacity in the region over the next five years.

Ultimately, the resolution of the stand-off in the South China Sea will require that Beijing agree to a collaborative diplomatic process with its neighbors. The United States has not taken a position on the sovereignty of any particular disputed feature, but China’s unilateral efforts to rewrite the map in the region are dangerous and must be challenged. It will be helpful for other claimants to prepare their own arbitration claims, so that China’s embarrassment in The Hague may be repeated in the coming years if it does not choose to work with its neighbors.

The contest over whether Beijing can transform the South China Sea into a Chinese lake will demand the immediate attention of the Obama administration and even more energy from the next president. What is at stake is not just so many disputed rocks in the ocean, but the question of whether China’s ambitions will be moderated by internationally respected rules, upheld by the United States and its security partners.

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