As summer arrives in Washington, the temperature is rising and storm clouds are on the horizon. Beijing’s island building in the South China Sea has been the subject of mounting international attention, provoking sharp objections from China’s neighbors and the United States. This tension is likely to come to a head at next week’s Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security forum that is attended by many of the region’s top defense leaders. Once summer is under way, there are ten maritime security-related developments to watch closely. Eight of these developments are likely to exacerbate tensions between Beijing and Washington. Just two have the potential to defuse them.
1. China’s unwavering course: During his recent trip to China, Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Beijing’s land reclamation activities. In response, Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted, “China’s determination to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity is rock solid and unquestionable.” Although leaders in Washington desire a strong partner in Beijing, U.S. officials are also determined not to allow China to undermine regional security by intimidating smaller states and pushing the United States out of the region. Chinese experts have noted the changing tone in Washington, with one observer warning of “radical anti-China discourse.” Yet, Beijing’s own assertiveness in East Asia is to blame for the changing debate in Washington. The question for U.S. policymakers is no longer whether to push back against Chinese assertiveness, but rather how.
2. A More Assertive Administration: A consensus is emerging within the Obama administration that the United States must respond more forcefully to Chinese assertiveness. At a Senate hearing last week, Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear commented on China’s unprecedented altering of the status quo in the South China Sea and stated, “rest assured… we will honor our commitments.” This week, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that China’s effort “to make sovereign land out of sandcastles […] is eroding regional trust.” A recent Wall Street Journal article on the South China Sea described efforts by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter — who will attend the Shangri-La Dialogue — to investigate options that include, “flying Navy surveillance aircraft over the islands and sending U.S. naval ships to within 12 nautical miles of reefs that have been built up and claimed by the Chinese.”
3. PACOM’s Change of Command: Secretary Carter’s view will be on display in Singapore, but he is not the only forward leaning defense leader on Asian security. Admiral Harry Harris, incoming Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, has warned, “China is creating a Great Wall of Sand.” Just last week, the USS Fort Worth conducted a freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea. The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded by urging other countries “to refrain from taking risky and provocative action.” Yet, observers increasingly recognize that U.S. Pacific Command may have to accept more risk to respond to Beijing’s salami slicing tactics. A senior U.S. official advised, “We’re just not going within the 12 miles — yet.”
4. Capitol Hill’s Frustration: House and Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle are also taking action. At a hearing on the South China Sea last week, Senator Bob Corker expressed concern that China has faced, “no real price to pay so I don’t think much is going to change.” Corker was reiterating comments made by the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, who called for “a strategy that aims to shape China’s coercive peacetime behavior” in a March 2015 letter to Secretaries Carter and Kerry. To that end, the Senate version of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act includes a new $50-100 million “South China Sea Initiative” to build the capabilities of U.S. allies and partners who are likely to be the targets of low-intensity Chinese coercion.
5. Presidential Aspirants: Even U.S. presidential candidates are demonstrating signs of consensus. Republicans and Democrats may not agree on much, but presidential candidates of all stripes are suggesting a tougher line against Chinese coercion. Secretary Hillary Clinton appears likely to adopt a firm approach to China. Meanwhile, multiple GOP candidates and their advisors have made concerns about Beijing central to their foreign policy critiques. These dynamics are only likely to intensify as the presidential campaign comes into full swing. And the election may be having an effect in China; some analysts have argued that Beijing has undertaken its recent island building spree precisely because it anticipates a tougher U.S. stance after the 2016 elections.
6. Tribunal Ruling: This summer will also present new occasions for tension between claimant states. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague has set a June deadline for China to respond to a submission filed by the Philippines. Beijing has declined to participate in the arbitration and will presumably miss this deadline. In its most recent press release, however, the tribunal declared that it will treat China’s communications, including a position paper it released in 2014, as formal submissions to the court. It will consider these materials alongside the Philippines’ submissions at a hearing in July. A final ruling on the merits of the case is not expected before spring 2016, but these looming deadlines will present plenty of opportunity for South China Sea claimants to exchange harsh words over their maritime and territorial claims.
7. Historical Debates: Tensions over the Senkaku Islands, administered by Japan and disputed by China and Taiwan, have been relatively calm since late 2014. Japanese Coast Guard data indicates that Chinese Coast Guard incursions into the territorial waters around the Senkakus have roughly halved since this crisis peaked in 2013. Since Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe’s meeting on the sidelines of APEC in November 2014, Japan and China have also begun talks to establish a formal crisis resolution mechanism. Yet, sovereignty disputes in the East China Sea are a barometer for the broader bilateral relationship between Japan and China. History issues are a perennial source of Sino-Japanese tension, and this summer marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Abe is expected to make a major speech in mid-August and Beijing will hold a large military parade in September. Any future prospects for peace in the East China Sea depend on how Tokyo and Beijing approach and manage these catalytic events.
8. Taiwan Tensions: Taiwan’s upcoming presidential elections may also roil the waters. The DPP, traditionally Taiwan’s pro-independence party, is a strong favorite to recapture the presidency from Ma Ying-jeou’s ruling KMT. The DPP has already stated that if it is returned to power it would revise Taiwan’s approach to the South China Sea. Washington has been pressing Taipei to restate its Eleven-Dash line claims, which are also the historical basis for Beijing’s claims. If Taipei revisited these claims, Beijing would be none too pleased. A redefinition of Taiwan’s position could inflame cross-Strait tensions. The presidential election does not take place until January 2016, but Tsai Ing-wen, Chairwoman of the DPP and presidential candidate, will visit Washington in early June.
9. Strategic and Economic Dialogue: This year’s annual U.S.-China dialogue will be held in Washington in June, and has some potential to act as a pressure valve on mounting tensions. Secretaries Kerry and Lew will be joined by State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Vice Premier Wang Yang. The Dialogue has helped to improve relations between U.S. and Chinese leaders in the past and could yet again be an opportunity for quiet diplomacy. Secretary Kerry’s reportedly successful recent meeting with President Xi indicates that personal management of bilateral relations is critical, particularly once Shangri-La’s public performances are in the rearview mirror.
10. President Xi’s State Visit: The event that has the most potential to help stabilize the U.S.-China relationship is Xi Jinping’s September visit to Washington. Both governments have every incentive to make sure this visit goes smoothly, and Xi has reportedly requested to address the U.S. Congress, which would be a first for a Chinese leader. Yet, both sets of leaders will also be required to address differences in their national interests, and make clear how they intend to manage potential disputes and crises moving forward.
The United States, China, and other states in the region have a mutual interest in avoiding conflict and maintaining stability in Asia. Beijing’s brinksmanship, however, is triggering a balancing response in Washington. The ten developments discussed above have the potential to rapidly escalate the tensions or to slightly diffuse them. Yet if recent trends are any guide, Shangri-La is likely to usher in several months of diplomatic strain around maritime disputes, even if it is just in the form of rhetoric. It is likely to be a stormy summer at sea.
Zack Cooper is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Mira Rapp-Hooper is a fellow at CSIS and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. The authors can be found on Twitter @ZackCooper and @MiraRappHooper.
Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs