China has been troubling its neighbors lately, and that makes it easier for President Obama to court Asian nations. Little has alarmed the nations that share a border with China more than the 2010 declaration that much of the South China Sea falls in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). They note that China has increased naval patrols in the area, pressured foreign energy companies to halt operations in contested waters, and imposed fishing bans on parts of the sea. Senator Jim Webb notes “the growing number of nations around the South China Sea . . . voicing serious concerns about China’s pattern of intimidation.”
The critics might be less alarmed if they recognized that laying such claims is far from unprecedented in the scale of global muscular diplomacy. In effect, numerous nations lay claims to lands, seas and even rivers of other nations, including the Palestinians and the Israelis, India and Pakistan, Turkey and Greece, and Iran, which continues to dispute Caspian Sea claims with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia. Just to point to one recent telling case in point: Canada and Russia are currently asserting rival claims over large parts of the Arctic. Canada claims rights to over 656,000 square miles of the area, while Russia is bringing its claim to 380,000 square miles before the UN. Moreover, both sides went far beyond declarations. Russia announced in July 2011 that it would create two specialist brigades to be based in the Arctic (a brigade typically contains at least a few thousand troops). One month later, Canada held an Arctic military exercise with more than one thousand troops, its largest ever in the Canadian Arctic. Both nations are eager to reap the vast projected spoils of oil and mineral explorations. The Arctic boasts nearly a quarter of the world’s untapped oil and gas reserves, as well as plentiful fisheries and a new sea route that will cut as much as half off the shipping time between Asia and Europe. Yet those so animated about China’s claim seem to yawn when similar claims are made by other nations.
Moreover, the main issue is not that claims were made, but rather what China plans to do next. Will China use its military to enforce its claims—or turn to courts, mediation and negotiation? Critics point out that, in the past, China has used force in a number of its border disputes. The Chinese attacked India in 1962 over a border dispute, and that war resulted in thousands of casualties. China captured the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974, and in 1988 China’s military sunk several Vietnamese ships, killing seventy sailors, while defending its claim to the Johnson Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.
One notes, though, that the last of these incidents took place almost a generation ago, and China has settled seventeen of its twenty-three territorial disputes with other governments. Usually Beijing gained control over less than half of the contested land and offered “substantial compromises in most of these settlements,” according to MIT professor Taylor Fravel. Moreover, in 2003, China signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with the ASEAN countries, whose main tenet is to “settle such disputes amongst themselves through friendly negotiations” and not through “the threat or use of force.” That year, it also signed the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which resolved that future conflicts between the parties would be worked out through dialogue and cooperation.
Moreover, far from helping China to become the regional hegemon, Beijing’s territorial claims have moved its neighbors to court the West and seek stronger alliances with the United States. This is not true of merely Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines, but also of a formerly very close ally of China—Vietnam. Even Burma has sought to put some distance between itself and China. It just suspended construction on a $3.6 billion Chinese-backed dam project. The decision is widely seen as a demonstration of the government's eagerness to signal that it is not a client of China and is ready to rebalance its international relations.
In short, China’s claims over the South China Sea deserve attention. However, while they are rather inflated, they are far from unprecedented, and so far China has done less to enforce its claims than many other nations. A main test of China’s “aggressiveness” is not in its making territorial claims—claims that are akin to a lawyer’s opening statements at trial—but whether it will submit them to settlement in peaceful ways or use force to undergird them. Meanwhile, the mere voicing of these claims by China is leading its neighbors to ally themselves with the West And that helps Obama in his most recent foreign-policy foray.
Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard, University of California at Berkeley and is a professor at The George Washington University.