South China Sea dilemma: how can the US-led movement persuade China to act fairly?
- Amid anxiety about China’s bullying and US commitment, Asean and Quad nations could issue a joint statement calling out Beijing for its ‘unlawful’ activities and demanding a course correction. How China responds would be instructive
However, even the more critical commentators agree that it marks a major punctuation in the troubled US-China relationship, and that a deep policy reappraisal is now embedded in the Washington beltway which perceives Beijing as a security threat. This assessment is expected to be refined by the next White House incumbent, whoever that may be.
In a strong indictment of China’s Communist Party, Pompeo declared: “For too long we let the [Communist Party] set the terms of engagement, but no longer. Free nations must set the tone … Indeed, this is what the United States did recently when we rejected China’s unlawful claims in the South China Sea once and for all.”
Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions
While Beijing is no doubt reviewing the challenge posed by Pompeo’s statements and calibrating its response, the regional response is instructive and points to the dilemma of dealing with China both in the maritime context and in the wider spectrum of political, security and economic bilateral relationships.
Australia was quick off the blocks in aligning with the US position, reiterating that China’s “maritime claims are not valid under international law” in an US-Australia ministerial dialogue on July 28.
Chinese senior military official dismisses US defence secretary’s remarks on South China Sea militarisation
This is the dilemma for all the principal interlocutors in the South China Sea and the extended maritime domain – what can the US-led “we” do to prevail upon China to act in an acceptable manner? If the objective is to encourage Beijing to join the cluster that broadly accepts the rule of law as detailed in UNCLOS, a mix of incentive and suasion is called for.
The challenge is exacerbated by the reality that while the nations concerned share an anxiety triggered by Chinese bullying or aggression, there is little agreement about how much they can commit to the Pompeo formulation and raise the ante against Beijing.
Philippine officials unveil beaching ramp on disputed South China Sea island
The unstated regional anxiety is not only about China’s bullying and territorial transgressions but also about US commitment to staying the course and compelling Beijing to comply with any consensus.
An immediate litmus test could be a joint statement from Asean and Quad nations calling out China for its “unlawful” activities and demanding a course correction. Whether China is dismissive of such a nuanced approach or engages in constructive dialogue would point to how Beijing proposes to position itself with the rest of the world.
Appeasement is a diminishing option, as the US is now conceding, in its own trajectory from presidents Richard Nixon to Donald Trump.
Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think tank based in New Delhi