A Sino-US deal on the South China Sea is difficult, but not impossible

Mark Valencia says the cooler heads on both sides should recognise there is sufficient ground for give and take, following The Hague tribunal’s ruling that no Spratly feature is an island entitled to full rights

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 July, 2016, 12:55pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2016, 9:39am

Amid the difficulties in the wake of the lopsided July 12 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, there lies an opportunity for reducing US-China tension in the region.

China is understandably angry and humiliated by the verdict. The US has wisely urged all states involved to cool their rhetoric and avoid statements and actions that may further antagonise China. And after a decent interval, when the dust has started to settle, the US could put its own rhetoric into action by striking a deal with China.

China has long objected to America’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes along its coasts. China’s challenges to these forays have resulted in a series of dangerous incidents such as those involving a US EP-3 plane (in 2001), the Impeccable (2009 and 2013), the Poseidon (2014) and others. The US step-up of freedom of navigation operations has also rubbed salt in the festering wounds to China’s pride.

The US and other claimants, as well as the tribunal, want China to cease its reclamation and “militarisation” of various features. The other claimants, particularly the Philippines, say China should stop harassing their fishermen and their oil exploration vessels. And the US doesn’t want China to declare an air defence identification zone over the disputed areas.

Philippines rejects conditional offer of talks from China on South China Sea dispute

A trade-off could be struck. The US could cut back on or suspend its surveillance missions and freedom of navigation operations. The latter were supposedly undertaken to protect the rights of the international community. But now the tribunal has ruled that no Spratly feature is a legal island and has in essence upheld freedom of navigation in a large part of the South China Sea, such operations may no longer be necessary.

A trade-off could be struck. The US could cut back on its surveillance missions

In return, China should cease reclamation and “militarisation” actions, at least for low-tide elevations in others’ exclusive economic zones. It should stop harassing other countries’ fishermen and oil exploration vessels operating in disputed areas. It should also prevent its fishermen from damaging coral ecosystems and harvesting protected species. Most importantly, it should not declare an air defence zone over disputed Spratly features or its historical waters claim. An air defence zone along its South China Sea coast, extending 200 nautical miles, would be more appropriate.

This trade-off would be followed by a dialogue as to what constitutes “militarisation”. What is the intent behind it and who is to judge that? Does it depend on the type of weapons and sensors involved? Does it depend on the nature and timing of ships, planes and submarines deployed? Perhaps the US and China could forge an agreement on what constitutes militarisation, and how much is too much.

Why Beijing should seek damage control following the South China Sea decision

Perhaps the most important long-term opportunity created by the tribunal’s ruling is for cooperation between China and Southeast Asian countries in exploring, exploiting and protecting the large common heritage area created by the tribunal’s denying all Spratly features an exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

These are the opportunities created by a seemingly difficult and dangerous situation.

For now, however, China’s continued prevention of Philippine fishermen from accessing its waters and the announcement by PLA Navy commander Admiral Wu Shengli ( 吳勝利 ), after meeting US chief of naval operations Admiral John Richardson, that China would press ahead with construction on the features it claims “regardless of pressure from any country” do not bode well for any immediate deal. Nevertheless, US National Security Adviser Susan Rice is expected in Beijing this week and perhaps her talks could involve the contours of a trade-off down the road to reduce tensions. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Mark J. Valencia is adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies