Trouble in the South China Sea – by Bonnie Glaser | Foreign Policy

17 September 2012

Because the party bases its legitimacy in large part on its nationalist credentials, no Chinese leader is likely to do anything but aggressively defend Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. Popular sentiment in favor of a tougher Chinese stance toward the South China Sea has already been stoked. The incoming leadership will undoubtedly be aware of the risks of further stoking these sentiments — but the temptation will be irresistible, as such steps would bolster the new leadership’s legitimacy.

Xi Jinping, President Hu Jintao’s likely successor, is widely believed to have a high degree of self-confidence — certainly far more than Hu had 10 years ago when he assumed power. Whereas Hu focuses on China’s weaknesses, Xi is from a new generation that grew up in the era of reform and opening up to the outside world, and believes that China is rising quickly. Confident in the belief that the gap between United States and Chinese power is narrowing, Xi is likely to stand up for Chinese interests in the international arena, especially those deemed to be China’s “core interests,” which include issues related to sovereignty over the South China Sea.

To some extent, scholarly debate in China has been artificially repressed in the run-up to the leadership transition. Open disagreements, especially on sensitive issues, are viewed as a possible sign of cracks in party unity and are therefore strongly discouraged on the eve of party congresses. These debates, however, will likely burst into the opening in the next year: Questions of whether the United States is in decline and the global balance of power is shifting inexorably in China’s favor, and whether China’s 20-year period of strategic opportunity that began in the turn of the century is prematurely coming to an end. These debates will put additional pressure on the Chinese leadership to assertively defend Chinese interests.

According to informed Chinese analysts, Beijing has drawn the conclusion that former Communist Party chief Deng Xiaoping’s policy toward managing the South China Sea disputes has failed. That policy stated that while sovereignty over much of the sea belongs to China, those disputes can be set aside and joint development can be pursued. The Chinese maintain that while China has refrained from extracting oil and gas in disputed waters, other countries have not been similarly restrained. A new policy has yet to emerge and will likely be postponed until after the leadership transition — but it is almost certain that the new policy will be tougher.

The Obama administration has rightfully enunciated a set of principles to guide behavior in the South China Sea. In July 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for “a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion.” She stated that the United States opposes the use or threat of force by any claimant and insists on unimpeded commerce, freedom of navigation, and open access to Asia’s maritime commons. Clinton further maintained that claimants should pursue their territorial claims in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and urged all parties to reach agreement on a code of conduct in the sea.

It is important that the United States adhere to these principles and censure any party that acts contrary to them. Being objective and fair will give credibility to U.S. policy. An exemplary even-handed statement was made by Panetta in June, when he noted that the United States had “made our views known and very clear to our close treaty ally, the Philippines, and we have made those views clear to China and to other countries in the region.”

There is no doubt that China’s behavior has been the most egregious of all the actors in the South China Sea, but to single it out for reproach without mentioning the provocative actions of other claimants damages U.S. credibility. The Aug. 3 State Department statement on the South China Sea, which singled out Chinese actions as “risk[ing] further escalating tensions in the region,” was an unfortunate example of this. By abandoning its traditional even-handed and objective approach, Washington provided Beijing with ammunition to argue that the United States has taken sides against China.

Singling out China may bring cheers from some quarters in the short term, but it undermines U.S. influence in the South China Sea in the long run. The Aug. 3 statement, for instance, was initially quietly welcomed by several of the Southeast Asian nations, as it came on the heels of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh where the organization failed to agree on a joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years due to differences over whether to include a reference to the Scarborough Shoal incident. However, the subsequent increase in U.S.-China tensions heightened anxiety in Southeast Asian capitals, which then appealed to the United States to take a diplomatic pause. Washington’s misstep temporarily reduced rather than enhanced its effectiveness as a counterbalance to China.

Going forward, the United States should hew closely to its principled approach to managing the South China Sea territorial disputes and maintain its longstanding position of neutrality on those disputes. At the same time, it should emphasize the shared interests of the United States and other nations in international norms that are threatened by China’s assertive policies.

The United States should also press for a legally binding framework governing claims and disputes in the South China Sea. That means urging all claimants to bring their maritime claims in conformity with the Law of the Sea treaty — which the United States should also ratify, in order to increase the effectiveness of its efforts. Furthermore, the United States should continue to encourage China and ASEAN to initiate negotiations on a code of conduct containing a dispute settlement mechanism. Once the process of negotiations begins, it is likely to have a calming effect that will defuse tensions.

The smaller states of the region are anxious that the new type of major power relationship that is being discussed by Washington and Beijing will lead to increased U.S.-China cooperation at the expense of the interests of other countries, including the members of ASEAN. These concerns should be promptly dispelled, and the United States should continue to promote the centrality of ASEAN as an anchor of regional stability.

Finally, it is imperative that the United States continue to strengthen its economic, diplomatic, and military engagement in East Asia. The rebalancing of U.S. strategic priorities to Asia is essential to ensure that the peace and stability that has prevailed in the region for the past two decades — and from which all regional nations have derived benefit — endures.

 (Original version is available at Foreign Policy)

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