Continuing the Discussion: The South China Sea

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A (More) Diplomatic Path: The South China Sea


There is no doubt that Beijing is attempting to claim disputed island chains, such as the Spratly and Paracel Islands, in the South China Sea and has been clear in its intentions to continue building artificial landmasses in disputed regions there. In response, the United States is conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) with Navy destroyer ships and B-52 bombers. It is undoubtedly necessary for the United States to ensure China is accountable for its unfair actions, yet it gains nothing from parading its warships and B-52s around like pillars of false strength. FONOPs conducted in contested areas may have the purpose of showing commitment to maritime freedom, but their practical purpose in the long-term is limited. By pushing China more on diplomatic and economic fronts, the United States can secure a better path forward on this issue.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter explained that recent FONOPs are merely meant to “challenge attempts by claimants to restrict navigation rights and freedoms.” However, these FONOPs can also be seen as a commitment to an unsustainable, unstable form of deterrence in the South China Sea. Carter has already called for “an immediate and lasting halt” to China’s land reclamation activities, but this lofty request not only fails in deterring China from building on underwater reef structures, it also discredits the U.S. government and its defense forces as capable of living up to its sometimes far-fetched red lines. Instead, it is imperative the United States work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to ensure China promptly signs the South China Sea Code of Conduct. Using diplomatic pressure to accomplish this would guarantee that the fate of contentious regions in the South China Sea are decided in an international court, not in an official’s office in Beijing.

Furthermore, Washington needs to do more to facilitate ASEAN discussion in coming together to stand strong against an aggressive China. This will not be an easy task, but a united front would be able to pressure China, especially through the threat of decreased trade deals. This, combined with the weight of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), would increasingly ensure the global economy reflects U.S. values and standards. This would surely weigh heavily on Beijing’s mind in planning future maritime adventures. A shift away from the current military-focused responses to China’s aggression in the South China Sea will yield not only benefits, but also safety for the United States and China.

A Better Show of Strength in the South China Sea


Despite media driven narratives regarding the South China Sea, the United States does not seek to temper China’s rise to power on the global stage. The U.S. government’s diplomatic and military organs pursue a strategy that protects and ensures commercial, maritime, and airspace security and safety. The United States aims to resolve these issues through a strong leadership presence, via both diplomatic channels with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China, and security measures through strengthening military deterrence measures.

China’s aggressive land reclamation projects and expansive military presence in these disputed regions have spurred U.S. response in the form of supporting its allies and partners in the region through economic and military assistance. The United States must take actions that strengthen its leadership role in the region until China abides by international laws and norms vis-à-vis its membership with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and coming to terms with ASEAN members in order to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

The recent Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOPs) have certainly garnered headlines and provoked China; however, these operations remain vitally important in maintaining peace in the region. During the summer of 2014, Vietnam sought to exercise its rights under the UNCLOS to sail in disputed territories in the Paracel Island chain. Now referred to as the Haiyang Shiyou 981 standoff, China placed an oilrig south of the Paracel Islands and refused to negotiate with Vietnam. China ultimately removed its oilrigs under the guise of a threatening typhoon, but established a dangerous precedent of unilaterally claiming disputed maritime territories.

Current U.S. strategy of deterrence must be refined so that China clearly understands what actions constitute a violation of UNCLOS and international law. The United States must seek agreements with ASEAN members over policy options that transcend reputational and legal costs in order to make clear acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The United States should seek to expand its security guarantees with the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty should China continue to avoid negotiation and arbitration with the Philippines. These renewed defense measures will act to deter China from unilaterally building infrastructure nearby. The U.S. government must communicate that these measures aim to force China to abide with UNCLOS and sign the ASEAN proposed Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

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