The best way out is always through. President Trump’s treatment of the South China Sea during his recent Asia trip suggested that he thought dealing with the problem of going out is best done by avoiding it and not going ‘in’ at all. Robert Frost can of course be forgiven for not foreseeing his epigram being abused in reference to the problems currently afflicting the South China Sea. All the complexities inherent in such an intricate issue cannot be covered in such a short piece; but, certain recent developments affecting the long term code of conduct in the South China Sea and their implications can be discussed.
Territory claimed by China in the South China Sea is encompassed within a “nine-dash-line” and technically stretches back to 1947 when the Republic of China first announced its claims. Once China continued its militarization of various artificially constructed islands after dismissing a decision by a tribunal in The Hague which rejected China’s claims to rights within its “nine-dash-line,” the U.S. continued to implicitly accept unilateral Chinese decisions in the area. Since no other claimant to the South China Sea can match Chinese military power, the U.S. only risks having its superiority eroded in a region of strategic significance if it maintains a passive role in the region.
Trump’s recently concluded trip to Asia saw him treated to a “state visit plus” in China where his occasionally obsequious treatment of Xi Jinping was emblematic of Sino-U.S. relations in general. After much focus on North Korea and trade, the South China Sea seemed but an afterthought, left unmentioned. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, however, did state the two sides had a “frank exchange… on the South China Sea” while joint statements issued after Trump’s visit to the Philippines and Vietnam both reiterated the traditional declaratory American position of highlighting “the importance of unimpeded lawful commerce and the need to respect freedom of navigation and over flight and other lawful uses of the sea.” A seemingly extemporaneous offer to mediate in the resolution of disputes between claimants in front of cameras when standing next to the President of the Philippines aside, Trump, by not creating his own China policy, has de facto assumed the declaratory American position that the U.S. stands for freedom of navigation in accordance with accepted international law.
Failure to so far take any measures other than occasional freedom of navigation patrols means China has encountered no foreign resistance, besides sporadic pronouncements from the U.S., to continuing its own policy of limiting the resolution of claims to the South China Sea between the claimants themselves. This position in practice would often result in (and already has) China conducting bilateral negotiations with a country that is militarily inferior to and in all likelihood economically dependent on China. Only through military power can the U.S. persuasively demonstrate the following political commitment to both its allies in Asia and China: a limit exists to the lengths to which China can pursue its own unilateral military activities in the region. Without this commitment, Asia, along with one of world’s most important strategic waterways, risks being dominated by a great power whose interests do not at all times align with those of the West.
A key aspect of China’s growing ability to enforce its preferences in the region is its historical position of hegemony in East Asia. Colonization by Western powers during the 19th century aside, China’s civilization has experienced millennia of uninterrupted growth as the regional power in East Asia. China’s staggering economic growth over the past 30 years has inevitably resulted in investments into the Chinese military which today is approaching the ability to project sustained force globally. Revealingly, in Xi’s much noted speech on the occasion of the opening of the 19th Communist Congress, China’s much contested island-building was touted as a major achievement. Most observers also agree it is unlikely China can field a true blue water navy and ensure the security and supply of naval forces deployed past the second island chain in the Pacific without first dominating the South China Sea.
ASEAN’s latest summit concluded last week with another failure by members of ASEAN to request that China abide by the rulings of The Hague tribunal (although a perfunctory reference to the UNCLOS was made). One reason other claimants to the South China Sea cannot even issue a statement on the issue if their position stands in contradiction to Beijing’s, is China’s military superiority. Earlier this month China announced agreeing upon a set of bilateral principles governing conduct in areas disputed between itself and Vietnam. A similar agreement between China and the Philippines was also announced last week, whereby each country renounced the use of force in the resolution of bilateral disputes in the South China Sea. These are significant developments involving other claimants and have no doubt vindicated China’s consistent position that it will engage in diplomacy with only those nations who are directly involved in the dispute at hand.
China’s military superiority, combined with a tight grip on the economic lifelines of many neighbouring Asian nations, culminated in ASEAN and Chinese leaders agreeing at the latest ASEAN meeting to begin working on a general outline for a code of conduct. This code would likely supplement or substitute for the current Declaration of Conduct (DOC) agreed upon by all ASEAN members in 2002—which is separate from the previous bilateral agreements. This updated DOC will undoubtedly reflect China’s superiority. Ideally, bilateral codes of conduct in the South China Sea agreed to by China and another nation would govern the development of the area’s vast economic resources. In the event China decides to construe such agreements as a pretext for offensive military action in the South China Sea, the principle of freedom of navigation the U.S. defends internationally would certainly be at risk.
Issues concerning the economic profits of developing the resources in the region should be separated from issues concerning the U.S., particularly freedom of navigation. Not doing so risks a military resolution of problems plaguing the South China Sea which would represent the worst case outcome. Without the commitment of American power to the defence of international law in Asia, China’s militarization of these islands will continue to a point where the state of their development justifies their military defence by China. Consequences of a conflict involving the major powers in Asia would have disastrous implications on the global economy.