The Ripon Forum

Volume 49, No. 3

September 2015

Why the Stakes are so High in the South China Sea

By on September 10, 2015


Cronin_WEB_highresNavigating the stormy South China Sea requires realistic U.S. foreign policy anchored by comprehensive power, deep engagement, and enduring principles. The area is the center of intensifying maritime competition. China is incessantly asserting a claim on that vast body of water, which is more than twice the size of Alaska. Back in 2010 when Chinese heavy-handedness was resonating throughout the region, Beijing indicated this marginal sea represented a core interest. However, six nations in the Southeast Asian region have genuine concerns over security of this maritime domain.

The South China Sea lies at the nexus of a global economy on which the prosperity of all major trading nations depend. About 90 percent of commerce trade is seaborne and more than a third of all cargo transits its waters. The South China Sea has become the epicenter of the Chinese buildup. The same area falls within the so-called “first island chain” where the American capability to project forces is being questioned.

Chinese faith in their perilous style of authoritarianism is a major source of instability. As Orville Schell has noted, the new confidence of Beijing “in its wealth and power has been matched by an increasingly unyielding and aggressive posture . . . in its maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas.” China is employing military and non-military pressure including economic, information, and psychological warfare. In two years it added 3,000 acres of land in the South China Sea. Although the other South China Sea claimants (the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei) have sought to buttress their sovereignty claims over the decades, their efforts are dwarfed by the scale and pace of China’s activity. As Andrew S. Erickson and Kevin Bond note, “China has managed to create more than 17 times more land in 20 months than all of the other claimants combined over the past 40 years, accounting for 95 percent of all artificial land in the Spratlys.”

The South China Sea lies at the nexus of a global economy on which the prosperity of all major trading nations depend.

In a hasty excavation process, huge Chinese dredges have visited considerable damage on the fragile marine ecosystem. Unfortunately, the construction is being used to substantiate a flimsy legal claim to impose the nine-dash line, which embraces most of the South China Sea. Beijing undoubtedly wants to establish its position before next year when an international tribunal will rule on a case brought by the Philippines regarding the legal standing of this suspect claim by China to this vast region.

Through piecemeal, salami tactics China is demarcating its sphere of maritime influence, which unsettles neighboring states and plants seeds of doubt about the will and ability of the United States to serve as an effective counterweight. A 3,000-meter runway on Fiery Cross Reef, for instance, will enable Chinese military aircraft to operate 740 miles from the mainland. China has mounted large-scale naval exercises within the South China Sea as well as the East China Sea and Yellow Sea. This show of force is meant to intimidate its neighbors that deploy less capable deep-water and coastal forces.

Primarily because of Chinese aggressiveness at sea, American regional allies and partners fear the possibility of abandonment more than entrapment. Moreover, far from containing China, the actions by Beijing are driving the region closer to Washington and toward one another. Unlike the East China Sea where Japanese resolve and the reassertion of alliance obligations by Washington check Beijing, the South China Sea presents opportunities for adventurism. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the only regional organization that can muster political support and economic cooperation, but the fragility of this institution is tested whenever security challenges arise.

China’s recent moves to devalue its currency in the hope of boosting exports, along with volatility in its stock markets and corruption problems that produce public safety tragedies such as the explosion at Tinjian, have undermined domestic and international confidence in Beijing’s economic stewardship and governance. Yet rising nationalism and the Communist Party priority of preserving power and stability may well embolden rather than dampen China’s appetite to demonstrate strength in its neighborhood, particularly when it comes to maritime Asia.

Though the Obama administration rebalance to Asia makes geostrategic sense, it is half-hearted and lacks tangible results. Its signature economic initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership to create high trading standards for a dozen economies, remains unfinished. Similar diplomatic efforts such as the demand to halt activities in the South China Sea or calling on ASEAN and China to forge a binding code of conduct seem feckless since they have little chance of gaining purchase.

Because the Chinese are not as impressed by words, American strategy must rest on strength.

Some people attempt to trivialize the issue by proclaiming that we should not go to war over a bunch of rocks. But the stakes in the South China Sea are less about rocks, reefs, and resources than regional stability and maritime access. Practical ways exist to defend law and order, on one hand, and cooperate from a position of strength, on the other. Our efforts seek to preserve the post-World War II order and work with those states that are willing to adapt an inclusive, rules-based system in the future.

The United States can offset naval reductions through presence and active engagement in the South China Sea. In the long term, we should work with allies and partners to counter anti-access and area-denial capabilities and leverage technology to develop new concepts of operation. Such initiatives should be integrated within a bigger political and economic context. Because the Chinese are not impressed by words, American strategy must rest on strength. What is more, information sharing on the maritime domain as well as greater transparency are crucial to deterring adventurism and coercion.

American timidity sometimes has failed to impose costs on states that unilaterally change the status quo through force or coercion. This was demonstrated in the case of China displacing the Philippines from Scarborough Reef. Similarly, when the Chinese intensified reclamation activities earlier this year, U.S. Naval maritime patrol aircraft flew farther than 12 nautical miles from the artificial islands, although under international law planes are only required to observe the 500-meter safety zone.

Exercising freedom of navigation and conducting surveillance overflights are not aimed at demonizing China but instead underscore regional norms and international law that can also benefit the Chinese. What is more, Washington should cooperate with Beijing when our interests converge to promote stability, rule of law, access, and commerce. But when challenged in the maritime and cyber domains, the United States must stand with its allies and partners across the region. Unless we back our principles from a position of strength, we should not be surprised if China decides to fill the vacuum.

Patrick M. Cronin is a Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he was the Senior Director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, where he also oversaw the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs.

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