Six Summertime Steps in the South China Sea
This week, the countries that comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will assemble for their annual regional forum. Though not on the formal agenda, a hot topic will be a Code of Conduct with China for managing disputes in the South China Sea, which has been sought since the late 1990s but eluded the parties for as long. China’s recent Spratly island building activities have raised a new sense of urgency for codifying rules of behavior among other states in the region. Beijing’s building also suggests that China remains uninterested in crystallizing the territorial status quo in the South China Sea (for more on the South China Sea and why it matters, check out WOTR’s first Around The World podcast!). U.S. policymakers, for their part, have had harsh words for their Chinese counterparts in private and in public as China’s island spree has unfolded. Amidst this substantial pressure, the ASEAN–China Code of Conduct remains Washington’s best hope that the South China Sea disputes can be managed diplomatically. The reasons for continued U.S. interest in this lingering initiative are not difficult to divine.
The United States is not a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, and although it has stated national interests at stake — namely, freedom of navigation, and the desire to avoid armed conflict — Washington cannot advance these without some support from other states in the region. Its relationship with Beijing is also much broader than just the South China Sea, so treating China’s Spratly assertiveness as a bilateral issue is simply not reflective of Washington’s political stakes. The South China Sea disputes are, therefore, a place where a pragmatic U.S. strategy must contain a heavy cooperative component. But can multilateral means help to ensure Washington’s stated ends in this much-watched waterway? Put differently, is it possible for the United States to secure its interests in the South China Sea in tandem with other regional actors?
There is plenty of evidence that Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan share U.S. interests when it comes to security at sea and China’s use of coercion. These claimant states have shown an obvious interest in balancing against China since its island building got underway in 2014. All of these countries have expanded their naval and coast guard capabilities with clear South China Sea applications. These include patrol vessels, transport ships, corvettes, landing crafts, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters, submarines, and patrol aircraft.
In 2014–2015, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia have all pursued new strategic partnerships. Most obviously, an alliance is emerging between Manila and Hanoi, but claimants have forged ties among themselves and with Japan, Australia, and India. These claimants have also commenced training exercises with new partner militaries and drills that are explicitly focused on defense in the maritime domain. China’s assertiveness has also encouraged new diplomatic and political relationships.
These patterns leave little doubt that other claimants hope to counteract China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea (I have written about them in more detail in my recent testimony on Capitol Hill). Balancing China in the South China Sea, however, will be no easy feat. After two decades of annual double-digit increases in its defense spending, China’s military budget is six times larger than all of Southeast Asia’s and its capabilities overwhelm those of other regional states. China’s navy and coast guard outnumber those of all of the other claimants combined.
To complicate the picture further, many regional states also see an obvious interest in maintaining positive relations with China. Several of the South China Sea claimants are likely to participate in China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative. So while regional states are, like the United States, deeply concerned over China’s behavior in the South China Sea, they are neither unambivalent nor monolithic in their opposition, nor do their worries necessarily translate into coordinated policy responses. Washington must take this into account as it attempts to reinforce its South China Sea interests alongside regional partners.
There are several steps the United States can take to advance its interests in the South China Sea alongside regional allies and partners:
1. Code of Conduct, Stat!S. policymakers should continue to call for a Code of Conduct for managing the South China Sea disputes. Because ASEAN–China negotiations have no time limit and are based on consensus, however, China has been able to slow-roll this process while incrementally revising the status quo in its favor. Indeed, Beijing insists that the Code of Conduct should not even be discussed at this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum. ASEAN maritime states are increasingly interested in drafting some form of a code themselves and then offering Beijing the opportunity to sign it. Washington should support this effort. Some regional consensus on the rules of behavior for the South China Sea is far preferable to none at all.
2. Halt All Major Building. At the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogue, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called for an end to land reclamation, not just by China, but by all claimants. China has since announced that it is finished with most land reclamation activities, and its foreign minister just declared its land reclamation activities complete after arriving in Kuala Lumpur. China has, however, also turned to publicizing Vietnam’s land reclamation and construction activities. Vietnam’s activities pale in comparison to China’s. The fact that Hanoi has reclaimed any land and installed new military equipment, however, feeds China’s narrative that it is playing a defensive game of catchup and gives Beijing convenient talking points in domestic and international fora. The United States should insist that all claimants refrain from any major physical changes to the territories they presently occupy, including, but not limited to land reclamation.
3. Define Militarization. In recent weeks, U.S. leaders have wisely focused their public statements on the aspect of China’s island building that they find the most worrisome: Beijing’s militarization of the islands. China has already built one 3,000-meter airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef, may build a second on Subi Reef, and has installed sophisticated port facilities that may accommodate major surface combatants. In May, rumors circulated that mobile artillery had been spotted on one outpost, and there are certainly already radar and helipads in several locations. Washington’s calls for Beijing not to militarize its artificial islands, however, would be more powerful if leaders in China and in the region broadly understood what types of installations were considered expressly military, and what might be considered civilian, or even dual-use. China continues to insist that its new island bases are mostly for civilian purposes, and in recent days has counter-accused the United States of militarizing the South China Sea with its regular patrols and exercises. China’s Spratly construction can be measured and monitored, and if Beijing continues to build up these outposts, this may help to impose some reputational costs.
4. Coordinate Partner Capacity-Building. The Pentagon’s $425 million Southeast Asia Reassurance Fund may provide much-needed support to the coast guards and navies of other South China Sea claimants. Partner capacity-building efforts are long term initiatives that will take years to bear fruit, and the United States is not the only country providing this type of aid. Some regional navies and coast guards will have trouble absorbing assistance efficiently and effectively. Washington should establish a mechanism to coordinate partner capacity-building efforts in Southeast Asia with Australia, Japan, and India, so that training and equipment support is mutually reinforcing.
5. Maritime Domain Awareness. Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) capabilities for Southeast Asia should continue to top Washington’s list of partner capacity-building priorities. The United States should help to fund a multilateral monitoring architecture that can help claimants develop a common operating picture of the South China Sea. China’s construction developments on its artificial islands may proceed in fits and starts over the coming months — one might expect, for example, that Beijing will not build furiously prior to Xi Jinping’s September visit, but may resume activity later in the fall. Other claimants will be better able to coordinate their responses if they are not taken by surprise by developments and are working from the same set of facts.
6. Freedom of Navigation and Overflight Risk Assessments. Numerous U.S. partners have reaffirmed their commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight, and some have stated that they would firmly oppose a South China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone if China announced one. Less publicized, however, is the fact that multiple countries, including the United States, have already been warned away from China’s artificial islands, which are not entitled to national airspace or territorial waters if they were not islands when construction began. These incidents should be well documented, shared among relevant parties, and periodically publicized. This data is crucial to any judgment about whether U.S. and regional states’ interests are imperiled by China’s activities and will inform subsequent action in the region.
By taking these steps, Washington can maximize regional buy-in for its policies and advance its South China Sea interests in tandem with other states. Multilateral approaches alone are unlikely to arrest China’s incremental opportunism, which began well before its recent dredging activities. They can, however, help to coalesce much-needed regional consensus in the South China Sea and contribute to a clear-eyed dispute management strategy for the United States.
Mira Rapp-Hooper is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joe Bishop, U.S. Navy