Averting a Deepening U.S.-China Rift Over the South China Sea

The ongoing dispute threatens to drive U.S.-China relations permanently in a far more adversarial, zero-sum direction and destabilize the region.

The recently announced Chinese defense white paper focusing on China’s commitment to strengthen its growing naval power, along with bellicose remarks by Chinese and American officials regarding events in the South China Sea, have deepened tensions between Washington and Beijing and set the media and punditry world afire.

Reacting to continued Chinese land reclamation efforts on several reefs in the Spratly Islands, senior U.S. officials and military officers vow to “fight tonight” if needed to defend U.S. interests across the Indo-Pacific, while referring to Chinese claims across the South China Sea as “preposterous” and Chinese land activities there as designed to “militarize” the region and to build a “great wall of sand.” In response, Chinese officials and spokespersons warn the United States against provocative actions, insist that China will not back down and reiterate their determination to “safeguard our own sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Meanwhile, this heated rhetoric is being fueled by all manner of often misleading claims, charges, and demands for more aggressive action by outside commentators on both sides. Many in the United States see China as engaged in a concerted strategic effort to seize control over the entire South China Sea, land and water alike, as part of a larger attempt to push the United States out of Asia and replace it as the dominant force in the region. Only a more aggressive and sustained military-centered U.S. pushback designed to deter and humble China will avert this outcome, they insist.

In contrast, many in China see the United States as using the disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea and elsewhere as a means of justifying more concerted efforts to contain and undermine all Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific, and to encourage other states to provoke China and militarize the issue. Beijing must double its efforts to strengthen its position and show the United States and others that China cannot be intimidated, they demand.

This situation is not just another temporary downward blip in an up and down Sino-U.S. relationship. It threatens to drive U.S.-China relations permanently in a far more adversarial, zero-sum direction and destabilize the region. To allow a dispute over a few rocks and islands in a corner of the Asia-Pacific region to derail a vital relationship critical to both regional and global peace and prosperity is the height of folly. Hyperbolic statements, veiled threats and calls for more military action serve no useful purpose and will only lead to hardened positions and redoubled efforts on both sides to counter the other. What is needed is a far sharper level of clarity by both Beijing and Washington regarding their claims and grievances, and, on that basis, a clear indication of the consequences of unacceptable behavior, along with a commitment to provide mutual assurances over the near term to avoid specific tripwires, while working to stabilize the long term situation.

Washington’s message on the South China Sea issue has been badly garbled, making it seem as if it is opposed to any Chinese activities that involve an increase in presence or capability in the area, with little serious reference to the provocative actions of any other claimants. To clarify its position, the U.S. needs to focus like a laser on its two only real interests in the South China Sea, and connect its statements and actions to them as much as possible.

The first interest is freedom of navigation (FON), meaning access by the U.S. Navy to areas outside any legally established territorial waters surrounding islands or other features, including the so-called Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that extends for 200 nautical miles beyond such waters. China has no interest in obstructing commercial shipping or flights across the South China Sea and warning them against something they have never undertaken and would never do in the future, except perhaps in time of war, is unnecessarily provocative and misleading.

The second U.S. interest regarding this issue is the possible unprovoked use of force by China against other claimants. Such actions would inevitably generate a much greater level of tension across the region and push it toward an emphasis on military rivalry over peaceful economic growth. Both Washington and Beijing have a vital interest in preventing an escalating spiral of violence over disputed rocks and islands. Washington needs to end its vague opposition to undefined “coercion” by Beijing or others in the South China Sea and focus on preventing the sustained use of force.

Both of these U.S. interests involve potential violations of or disputes regarding international law and process, including three specific issues: 1) whether man-made islands can be used to justify 12 nm territorial seas and EEZs that can then be used to limit naval access; 2) whether a coastal state with EEZs can demand that foreign militaries notify them before transiting or engaging in ISR activities; and 3) the threat or resort to force over disputed territories.