Academic journal article Policy Review

Countering Beijing in the South China Sea

Academic journal article Policy Review

Countering Beijing in the South China Sea

Article excerpt

The most dangerous source of instability in Asia is a rising China seeking to reassert itself, and the place China is most likely to risk a military conflict is the South China Sea. In the second decade of the 21st century, the seldom-calm waters of the South China Sea are frothing from a combination of competing naval exercises and superheated rhetoric. Many pundits, politicians, and admirals see the South China Sea as a place of future competition between powers.

Speculation about impending frictions started at the July 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered an overdue statement on American interests in the South China Sea. Clinton averred that the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; that the U.S. supported a collaborative process in resolving the territorial disputes there; and that the U.S. supports the 2002 ASEAN-China declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea.

Despite Clinton's statement of support for China's own agreements with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China's Foreign Ministry responded negatively, claiming that the secretary's statement was "virtually an attack on China." China's military stated that it was opposed to "internationalization" of the six-country dispute and commenced a new and unusually large naval exercise in South China Sea the very next week.

This gathering maritime confrontation is instigated by China's assertions of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea and its stated intention to enforce that sovereignty. But the source of China's hubris is its view of its historic mandate to rule all under heaven. Extending China's borders a thousand miles across the South China Sea is only one policy manifestation of this vision of a new Chinese world order. Consistent with its Sinocentric ideology, Beijing believes its authority over its smaller neighbors should include determining their foreign policy. After Clinton challenged China's claim to the entire South China Sea, China's foreign minister reportedly glared at a Singaporean diplomat and pronounced, "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact." (1) More telling of China's opinion of its position among nations, the following Monday China's Foreign Ministry posted a statement that "China's view represented the interests of 'fellow Asians.'"

The competing territorial claims in the South China Sea are decades old, but today the Chinese government is full of a sense of accomplishment and the People's Liberation Army is flush with the fastest growing military budget in the world. Clinton's statement may have been inspired by earlier statements by Clinton's Chinese counterpart, the state councilor responsible for foreign affairs, Dai Bingguo, directly to Clinton herself and repeated to several U.S. aides that the enforcement of China's sovereignty over the South China Sea was a "core interest" on par with Taiwan and Tibet. While Dai Bingguo reportedly has desisted from using the term "core interest" to describe China's maritime sovereignty, personalities in China's military still do. In January ion the web site of the People's Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist party, surveyed readers about whether the South China Sea is China's "core interest"; 97 percent of nearly 4,300 respondents said yes. (2)

Short of a shooting war, protecting freedom of navigation in one of the globe's busiest sea lanes requires an amicable resolution of the competing territorial claims. Starting a process to resolve or neutralize the problem will require American leadership and resolve. Firm diplomacy backed by convincing naval power and patient leadership can strike a balance in the region that protects freedom of navigation, the integrity of international law, and the independence and sovereignty of Southeast Asia's nations.

The worst solution to the South China Sea dispute from the U. …

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