Hague decision on South China Sea puts US and China on collision course
Yun Tang says the tribunal’s ruling may be a turning point in US relations with China, and the two sides must exercise restraint and work together to prevent current tensions in the South China Sea from boiling over
The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration on Tuesday ruled on the Philippine case against China, rejecting Beijing’s maritime territorial claims to the South China Sea. Global attention is now on how the repercussions of this decision will affect the all-important US-China relations.
The US and China differ fundamentally over the South China Sea, known for its vital transportation lanes, rich resources and strategic value. Beijing wants to claim back territories in which its sovereignty has long been trampled by others. But Washington does not recognise Beijing’s territorial claims, instead viewing all Chinese maritime activities as lawless provocations.
To buttress its military ally the Philippines, the Pentagon sent two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea before the verdict. And three US destroyers have recently been patrolling near Chinese-held reefs and islands in the Spratly Islands and around Scarborough Shoal, an atoll close to the Philippine navy base at Subic Bay.
On the other hand, China acted fiercely in the run-up to the verdict by conducting seven days of military drills around the Paracel Islands. Chinese diplomats called the arbitration a “political farce” and said that China would not be intimidated “even if the US sent all 10 aircraft carriers to the South China Sea.”
The verdict undoubtedly strengthens the US position on the dispute. More importantly, the arbitration provides Washington with an opportunity to realise an underlying strategic goal of its “pivot to Asia” policy: to use the “first island chain” to block China’s increasing naval power from reaching into the Pacific.
Washington and Seoul agreed last week to deploy Thaad, the advanced US missile defence system, in South Korea. This makes China’s stand on the South China Sea even tougher as the Chinese navy’s submarine base on Hainan (海南) Island will be crucial to its future nuclear deterrent. As a reaction to the verdict, Beijing might declare a South China Sea air defence identification zone. The hot spot is Scarborough Shoal, upon which China may plan to build an artificial island.
The arbitration puts the US and China on a collision course. The verdict will test America’s commitment to its alliances while putting on trial China’s resolve to protect its territorial integrity. To the US, China is not only threatening its sole superpower status but also the international order in the Pacific. For its part, China wants to be treated in a way suitable with its increased economic and military power.
In fact, the Obama administration is facing mounting pressure for a tougher reaction to China in the South China Sea, due to the widespread belief that China has made inroads around the world because of the administration’s weak foreign policy. From another perspective, the South China Sea saga is a culmination of deepening distrust between the US and China in recent years. Washington’s suspicions have grown over perceived Chinese deviation from the course of becoming a cooperative partner sharing similar values. Subsequently, Washington’s China policy has been leaning towards thwarting China’s rise. President Obama has lifted the arms embargo on Vietnam, visited Hiroshima and wooed India; these are all seen in Beijing as efforts to encircle China.
But as the Obama administration has limited time in office, it is unlikely that Washington will take drastic action. The White House said on Tuesday the arbitration court ruling should be treated as final and binding and not as a reason to raise tensions. But Washington has not yet specified measures of responding to the verdict. Public opinion in the US is calling for more “freedom of navigation” sea and air patrols.
Nevertheless, there are signs that the US and China are exercising restraint. The two navies have practical mechanisms for guiding air and maritime encounters. Also, a Chinese flotilla is now participating in the US-led Rim of the Pacific naval exercises in Hawaii. It seems that both sides have thrown down the gauntlet but neither is ready to open a Pandora’s box.
US-China relations are colossal in scale, and on any given issue, observers can draw vastly different conclusions with equally ample evidence.
But there is an obvious question to ask: Is this the decisive point for the two countries to turn from potential rivals into open enemies? Do their disputes have to be settled by swords?
A skirmish or all-out war would serve no one. Obviously, any mishandling of the South China Sea upheaval will cause irreversible damage to bilateral ties. Diplomacy must lead the charge in breaking the current stalemate. The new Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has demonstrated some flexibility on the issue, saying Manila is ready to talk to Beijing, opening a window for the US and China to seek a mutually acceptable endgame.
Obama and Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) are scheduled to meet at the G20 summit in Hangzhou ( 杭州 ) this coming September. Thus, despite The Hague ruling having heightened conflicts of interest between the US and China, the two equally confident nations must work together to prevent current tensions in the South China Sea from running out of control.
Yun Tang is a member of the World Affairs Council of Washington, DC. [email protected]