The South China Sea Crisis: What Should America Do about It?
As China rapidly builds facts on the waters of the South China Sea, the United States is confronting a strategic conundrum similar to the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, when Washington faced a difficult choice between upholding its treaty obligations to an ally (Taiwan) and ensuring freedom of navigation in international waters, on one hand, and maintaining stable ties with a rising power (China), on the other. In a recent conference organized by the Boston Global Forum, which focused on the South China (and where I had the pleasure to be among the invited speakers), Joseph Nye made two important observations regarding China’s ongoing construction activities in the South China Sea. First, he correctly pointed out that the construction activities are neither new nor unique to China. This is true as other claimant states—namely Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines—have been engaged in varying forms of construction activities on disputed features in recent decades.
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Occupying the two most prized features in the Spratlys, Taiwan and the Philippines were able to build airstrips and advanced facilities on Itu Aba and Thitu islands, respectively. As early as 1995, the United States had to contend with the Mischief Reef crisis, which pit a treaty ally (the Philippines) against an emboldened China, which wrested control of the disputed feature in 1994 and proceeded with establishing a rudimentary military garrison soon after. Secondly, Nye reiterated the fact that China, which occupies about seven features in the Spratlys, trails Vietnam (21) and the Philippines (8). And unlike Taiwan and the Philippines, China wasn’t able to occupy a single island throughout its aggressive scramble in the South China Sea in the last three decades of the 20th century. Left with atolls, rocks, sandbars and other forms of low-tide elevations, China has resorted to building artificial islands.
With these observations in mind, one would be tempted to argue that China is simply catching up with other claimant states. China’s accelerated construction activities, however, standout for at least three reasons. To begin with, China’s coastal real estate gambit is unprecedented in scale, speed, and technological sophistication. No other claimant state comes even close to what China is undertaking in the disputed areas, which is tantamount to nothing less than geo-engineering on steroids. Second, while other claimant states have occupied features that fall well within their 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as well as their continental shelves, China, in contrast, is trying to achieve de facto sovereignty over features, which fall hundreds of miles away from its southernmost province of Hainan. So far, China’s sweeping “nine-dashed-line” claims in the South China Sea, based on its vaguely-defined notion “historical rights,” has hardly convinced any serious legal scholar outside China. Lastly, China’s construction activities could pose direct threat to freedom of navigation and overflight across the South China Sea, threatening not only the territorial claims of other claimant states, but also the national interests of extra-regional powers such as Japan and the United States.
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President Barack Obama has been blunt in his criticism of what many see as Chinese provocative behavior: “Where we get concerned with China is where it is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.” The overarching challenge, however, is how to slow down, if not stop, China’s aggressive posturing without risking a diplomatic breakdown and/or an armed confrontation with China in the western Pacific. This could very well define Obama’s foreign policy legacy.
The Crucial Year