Can China and US seize the chance for compromise at Strategic and Economic Dialogue?

Mark Valencia sees grounds for a Sino-US compromise on the South China Sea, as both have leverage

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 June, 2015, 4:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 June, 2015, 4:30pm

The US is hosting high-level talks with China today and tomorrow to address their growing array of differences. The teams, led by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese state councillor Yang Jiechi , are set to discuss China's reclamation activities in the South China Sea and the possibility of Beijing declaring an air defence identification zone there. Here are a few things the teams might consider.

The zone decision depends most of all on whether China decides it needs it to protect its national security. In an ironic twist, that in turn depends on the military activities of the US. The major aerial threat to China's national security from the South China Sea is America's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights off the mainland coast.

Although the aircraft stay outside China's 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, these are not all passive intelligence collection activities. They include active probing, listening and even interference with Chinese military communications, as well as the tracking of its new nuclear submarines.

China believes the 2001 EP-3 and the 2014 Poseidon P-8 South China Sea incidents resulted from an "abuse of rights" and were thus illegal US behaviour. Moreover, if the P-8 dropped sonobuoys into the water in its search for the submarines, China could argue that it violated the consent regime for marine scientific research under the UN Convention on Law of the Sea. The point is that if it were not for America's probes, China might not need to consider declaring an air defence zone.

The US performs the same intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities over the East China Sea. But China may view the South China Sea situation as different from that of the East China Sea, where it has already declared an air defence zone.

In the East China Sea, its zone overlaps those of South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, and includes the China-claimed but Japan-administered Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. This sovereignty dispute brings two visceral enemies face to face. Although there have been strong international objections to China's declaration of the zone there, it is not "illegal" in and of itself or without precedent. It was probably, in part, motivated by a desire to "level the legal playing field" vis-à-vis Japan's claims and previous actions in the disputed area.

China and Japan are major powers. The US is involved through its publicly declared willingness to come to its ally's aid if attacked. In China's view, it is an increasingly nationalistic and aggressive Japan that has altered the status quo by "nationalising" the disputed islands and even threatening to shoot down China's drones in the disputed area. Japan refuses to even acknowledge that there is a dispute, infuriating China. Worse, Japan is now considering participating in aerial surveillance of the South China Sea.

China's declaration of an air defence zone in the East China Sea reflects this angst with Japan as well as the growing confidence of its military, particularly its air force. It may also have felt it needed to declare the zone because it lacked control of any of the disputed features. Perhaps this is also why it insisted on requiring prior identification of any aircraft entering its zone, regardless of destination.

In the South China Sea, there is no rival major power as claimant. The other claimants are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Since Asean only takes decisions by consensus, many think China is successfully influencing its friends within the group to stall on taking a robust unified position.

China occupies eight scattered features there among more than 40 above high tide. The fear is that a China air defence zone would have a "prior notification" regime like that for the East China Sea. But a zone over those features it controls would be very complicated to enforce.

Further, since it already occupies some features, it does not need to declare an air defence zone to bolster its claim to sovereignty. More important, to do so would sour its relations with Asean. It would also feed into the narrative of the US, Japan and some rival claimants that China wants to control the South China Sea, including its air corridors and sea lanes.

China probably views the two seas differently and would only declare an air defence zone in the South China Sea if it considered the US and possible Japanese intelligence and surveillance probes a threat to national security. Thus, in a sense, the decision on an air defence identification zone is in the hands of Washington and Tokyo.

The good news is that at least China and the US are talking at the highest levels. Clearly, neither side wants a physical fight and both signalled as much at the recently concluded Shangri-la Dialogue. On June 11, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter welcomed General Fan Changlong , vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, to the Pentagon to discuss "areas of mutual interest" to both nations.

Compromise may be possible. China wants the US to cut back on its provocative probes. The US would like China not to declare an air defence identification zone or militarise its reclaimed features. A corollary to a compromise would be for all claimants to desist from any further construction or militarisation on any of the features. Conclusion of a protocol between China and the US on unexpected aerial encounters would also bolster the agreement.

This compromise package could be the basis for a broader "code of conduct" for the entire area and include the US. Of course, the devil is in the details. And in the absence of a compromise, the devil is coming to the fore.

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