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The U.S. and Japan May Literally Start a War over Rocks in the South China Sea

July 2, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: South China SeaUnited StatesJapanChinaDefense

The U.S. and Japan May Literally Start a War over Rocks in the South China Sea

Washington’s commitment to Tokyo may endanger American security.

Perhaps encouraged by U.S. statements, in April 2012, in the midst of a standoff with China over Scarborough Shoal, Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario stated that “In terms of U.S. commitment . . . they have expressed that they will honor their obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty.” Manila has called for explicitly including the disputed islands in the United States–Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, but the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement left this ambiguous. The treaty only commits the United States to help defend the “metropolitan territory” of the Philippines and the “Pacific Area.” Beyond that, Washington has remained evasive on the extent of its commitment.

In a May 2016 interview, former Philippines president Benigno Aquino III asserted that the U.S. “has to maintain . . . the confidence of one of its allies,” and “would be obligated to take military action in the South China Sea if China moved to reclaim a hotly contested reef directly off the Philippine shore.” The following month, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, answering a question about a U.S. response if China’s continues is territorial expansion in the South, especially occupying Scarborough Shoal, stated, “it will result in actions being taken . . . by the United States . . . . which will have the effect of not only increasing tensions, but isolating China.” Speaking at the conference, Senator John McCain said, “I am confident that America will continue to . . . secure our enduring national interests, uphold our treaty commitments, and safeguard open seas and open commerce.” Neither explicitly referenced coming to the defense of the Philippines if it is embroiled in a militarized conflict over disputed islands as an obligation under the U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty. Some have suggested that Washington should strengthen the alliance with the Philippines and “announce that its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines includes the disputed Scarborough Shoal,” but recognize that this “might unintentionally promote more provocative behavior by the Philippines.” Washington has recently taken steps to enhance the Philippines’ air and maritime domain awareness.

When the much anticipated Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling is issued, assuming it is favorable to the Philippines, this will provide Manila legal and political leverage to press for more resolute U.S. support when the Philippines seeks to enforce the court’s judgement or if China moves against Scarborough Shoal. Anticipating Washington’s support, the Philippines also may show less restraint and engage in riskier behavior when asserting claims against China, potentially entrapping Washington in a militarized conflict with Beijing over uninhabitable rocks in the South China Sea. However, newly-installed Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s conciliatory position contrasts with former president Aquino’s. Duterte has indicated that he will pursue conciliation with Beijing, even with a favorable decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. But, while this will reduce the likelihood of the U.S. becoming entrapped in a Philippines-China conflict, it also will cause some tension in the U.S.–Philippines alliance if it appears that Manila is distancing itself from Washington.

Beijing is attuned to the alliance security dilemma and China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson warned Washington that “strengthening . . . the military alliance will only aggravate confrontation and does not help solve the issue. China hopes [the] relevant country could bear in mind regional peace and stability, take a responsible attitude and act prudently.” With the alliance security dilemma in mind, Washington must carefully calibrate its commitments. The U.S. does not want to enable its allies and risk entrapment, but also does not want to give carte blanche to China. This is especially true regarding the hypersensitive issue of territorial disputes, one of the major causes of war.

Eric Hyer is an associate professor of political science and Asian Studies at Brigham Young University. His most recent book is The Pragmatic Dragon: China’s Grand Strategy and Boundary Settlements (University of British Columbia Press, 2015).

Image: Chinese navy frigate. Flickr/Charles W. Clark.