American warships should steer clear of the South China Sea
Military posturing by the US, in the name of ‘freedom of navigation’, will only serve to raise tensions in the disputed waters
The progress made by President Xi Jinping (習近平) and his American counterpart, Donald Trump, in talks in Hamburg and Florida mean nothing when it comes to the South China Sea. Sailings of American warships through the contested waters in the name of “freedom of navigation” are planned to again become routine. That they are provocative to China and dangerous in that they could lead to confrontation and conflict and upset ongoing negotiations among claimant countries does not enter into American calculations. Given the risks and disruption caused, though, Washington would do better to scrap what has become an outdated strategy.
The Barack Obama administration held off such missions between 2012 and 2015, but resumed them as China constructed islands on reefs and atolls and put military installations on them. Trump’s election rhetoric suggested that, as president, he would backtrack on existing policies towards Asia and lessen his country’s military presence. But true to his unpredictable ways, that has not happened and warships have sailed close to Chinese islands twice in the past three months. He has reportedly approved a plan for regular sailings to check China’s actions.
As the world’s only superpower, the United States has appointed itself the global policeman. It uses its navy to protect American overseas interests and support allies. Its warships aim to ensure “freedom of navigation”, as guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Paradoxically, US lawmakers have not given approval for ratification of the convention.
In the South China Sea, the US claims to be acting on behalf of its Southeast and East Asian allies. About US$5 trillion of trade passes through the waters. But while some of the region’s governments have military alliances with Washington, they are also building stronger relations with China, as much out of desire as necessity. In one such sign, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently said previously rocky ties were “on track” and with full involvement in China’s belt and road trade initiative, there were plans for high-level visits and an upgrade of a free-trade pact. But the island nation also has a military alliance with the US, requiring careful balancing.
China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, four members of which have claims to the South China Sea, have completed a framework for a code of conduct to deal with the dispute. That has figuratively calmed the waters while negotiations take place, although until resolution of the various claims, there is always a risk that tensions will resurface. The US’ actions threaten to undermine such efforts; for the sake of regional stability, American warships should stay away.