America’s clumsy South China Sea statement
August 14th, 2012
12:28 PM ET

America’s clumsy South China Sea statement

By Douglas Paal, CEIP

Editor's note: Douglas H. Paal is director for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where this commentary originally appeared. The views expressed are his own.

The rhetoric is growing hotter among China, most of its Southeast Asian neighbors, and the United States. This month, the State Department took the unusual step of issuing a press statement that singled out Chinese behavior for criticism in creating a new administrative district covering most of the disputed islets in the South China Sea. Beijing’s media outlets have been responding with invective that’s stoking already high emotions among the Chinese public. The issue of managing tensions and territorial claims that are inherently difficult to resolve has become more difficult, not less.

It was not apparently intended in Washington for the situation to deteriorate in this fashion. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out against unilateral actions in the South China Sea and for the development of an effective code of conduct to govern rivals’ activities in the area. This was widely understood to be a needed shove in China’s direction to quit stalling on agreeing to the code of conduct and to restrain the aggressive actions of its fishermen and oil drillers. It was accompanied by American professions of disinterest in the specific territorial disputes, but insistence on freedom of navigation in the heavily trafficked waters and peaceful resolution of the disputes under international law.

China didn’t like the American push then, at a time when Chinese diplomacy was scoring costly “own goals” in the East China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula as well. But by the end of 2010, China was trying harder to get along with its neighbors and Clinton’s warning seemed to have done well. More recently, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon made a trip to Beijing (and Tokyo) that was well received by Beijing’s highest leaders and seemed to put discussion of thorny issues on a high-policy plane. Coming right after his visit, the State Department statement must have arrived as a shock in Beijing.

The South China Sea presents complicated issues of evolving international law, historic but ill-defined claims, a rush to grab declining fish stocks, and competition to tap oil and gas reserves. Beijing’s much discussed “nine-dashed line,” which purports to give China a claim on about 80 percent of the South China Sea and its territories, used to be an eleven-dashed line. Two dashes separating Chinese and Vietnamese claims were resolved through bilateral negotiations years ago. This suggests that the remaining nine dashes are equally negotiable. But China rigidly refuses to clarify the basis for its claims, whether they are based on the accepted international law of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or the less widely accepted historical assertions. Beijing’s refusal to choose suggests it wants to maximize its legal and political leverage, even as the growth of its military and maritime assets gains physical leverage over its weaker neighbors.

Beijing isn’t alone. Hanoi has leased oil exploration blocks in contested waters, and Manila is trying the same. Their colonial occupations left a discontinuous record of historic claims, inclining them to rely more on UNCLOS to manage disputed resources. They eagerly encourage American weight thrown onto their side of the competition with China for free.

This is where the United States needs to move with caution and only after thinking many steps ahead. The overriding strategic objective of the United States in Asia is to manage China’s rise – which appears inevitable – in ways that don’t diminish vital American interests in the region. Navigating the transition period peacefully requires strength and consistency as well as the recognition of changing realities. Severe tests of the Sino-American relationship are to be expected as the United States works to persuade China to accept the existing international rules and principles that have brought prolonged peace, stability, and prosperity to the participants, especially China.

China’s immediate neighbors are by definition weaker than the much larger People’s Republic. Beijing’s temptation to exploit that differential in power needs to be resisted with policies that reward positive behavior and raise the cost of negative behavior.

It was likely such a calculus that led to the State Department recent warning to Beijing. Many in Washington resented China’s strong-arm tactics at the recent ASEAN Regional Forum meeting that prevented the issuance of a communiqué from the annual gathering for the first time in 45 years, explicitly due to disputes about the South China Sea. Moreover, China has increased its naval deployments and added to its various civilian fleets operating in the sea. China’s announcement of the creation of Sansha municipality and its sister military garrison in the disputed area seemed to push Washington’s patience past its limits. One can imagine U.S. officials arguing that aggressive People’s Liberation Army officers and other Chinese nationalists need to be taught that their policies are counterproductive.

The test for such an initiative by the United States is whether it’s effective in reaching its main strategic goal. Judging from the outrage coming from China at being singled out, after Vietnam and the Philippines had taken steps without being criticized to secure resources in the contested sea before China’s own actions, the U.S. statement seems to be backfiring.

Just weeks before the recent upswing in tensions, the Obama administration had successfully hosted a visit by Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III that Manila had hoped would bring Washington more closely in line behind Philippine claims. Obama gently let Aquino know that Washington’s support for the alliance is strong and growing, but that South China Sea claims are for Manila to handle alone or together with the other claimants. The United States will provide support for principled negotiations and a peaceful resolution, but not specific outcomes.

Now, by singling Beijing out for criticism, but not the others, Chinese observers believe the United States has taken sides against China. This has undermined the U.S. assertions of a principled approach based on international law by appearing not to be impartial.

U.S. direct interests in the South China Sea aren’t unlimited. The United States has no territorial claims on the minuscule land features there. American firms and citizens are not now at risk. Freedom of navigation is paramount, and China has a minority view under UNCLOS of what constitutes legitimate activity by naval vessels in its exclusive economic zones, which it claims for most of the South China Sea. There is a constant risk of American intelligence collection activity crashing into China’s insistence on the right to deny such activity. So far, this potential source of friction is being managed through political leadership by both sides, in the interest of preventing serious incidents and a deterioration of the overall U.S.-China relationship.

In view of the potential disruptive effects brought about by China’s rise and its neighbors’ responses, the United States has a further interest in a peaceful settlement. Moreover, reinforcement of the rule of international law is in America’s interest in reducing the cost of maintaining stability and managing change going forward.

Today, the South China Sea isn’t at the “Sudetenland” moment of the 21st century, which calls for standing up to aggression and the rejection of appeasement. China hasn’t militarized its foreign policy and doesn’t appear equipped to do so for a long time. Its neighbors are not supine, and they show on occasion, when needed, that they are able to coalesce against Chinese actions that they judge as going too far. At the same time, China and those neighbors have more going constructively in trade, investment, and other relations with each other than is at risk in this dispute.

This suggests the makings of a manageable situation, even if it remains impossible to resolve for years to come. Different Asian societies are quite accustomed to living with unresolved disputes, often for centuries.

In light of this reality, the United States would do well to adhere to principled positions it has already articulated, and stand for a process that’s fair to all disputants and those who will be affected at the margins. To do that, Washington will need to protect its position of impartiality and avoid repetition of the misconceived State Department press statement.

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Topics: Asia • China • Conflict • United States

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soundoff (56 Responses)
  1. David

    So according to this journalist (yes, I use the word journalist intentionally), US should just shut up and let Chinese do what it pleases? The article asks why US single out China and not saying anything about the other coutries like Philipine & Vietnam so I must ask if this author is blind, deaf (maybe both) because the author doesn't seem to know that China is the only country that:
    1. Established a province to "govern" the 80% of the South China Sea that it claims, disregard the conflicting, overlapping claims of other countries.
    2. Garrison troops in that newly establish province
    There are valid reasons for thinking that freedom of navigation will no longer exist if China effectively claims South China Sea as its own, as evident by the India military ships were confronted and questions by Chinese military when the ships traveled in international water in the area. The US is justified to call out China on its bully behavior. It must act now, or forever hold its mouth shut as demanded by the Chinese government.

    August 14, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Reply
    • zhuubaajie

      @David:

      The South China Sea is a CORE NATIONAL INTEREST for China, to be defended with the full faith and credit of the nation, including all methodology and resources. What is it to America? Same? Hardly.

      Yes, the choice is presented in so many words, no different from China telling the MacArthur led American army to stay the heck away from the Yalu. We all know how that ended when the general refused to heed the clear warning.

      The Chinese are ready. How about you?

      August 14, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        The CORE of these territorial disputes is natural resources – oil and gas. China and Vietnam had had a brief conflict in 1974 and 1988 regarding the islands Paracel and Spratly. Beijing had said its right to the area come from 2,000 years of history where these island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation.
        It had been calm in the region until the beginning of the 21st century. In the last 10 years countries in the region have become very keen to claim their shares of the natural resources.

        August 15, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
      • JO

        if my history is correct... MacArthur wanted to blow china back to stone age with Atomic bombs. You china men are blinded by propaganda should thank Truman for he did not agree and asked MacArthur to resign.... I wonder if you know how many millions of chinese were killed by your Mao. You are ready?? are you sure?? most of you are spoiled brats due to China's one child policy... maybe you'll just end up wetting your pants when war really happens

        August 19, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Turtlewood

      A Clumsy author wrote a clumsy article !!!!
      This author is lacking of information and stuffs going on this part of region, the Chinese govt is the problem by claiming historic..bla bla bla give them the right to own 80% of this water that, the fact that 1904 the Chinese made map show the Hainan island is the Southern tip of the of the territory.

      August 14, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Reply
      • Pete

        Well, I don't see us having any problem with Israel's claim of Jerusalem and other terrorities based on biblical stories. Oh I forget US politics is pretty much run by the Jews!

        August 16, 2012 at 11:41 am |
      • LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL

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        August 16, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Backtou

      If you are truly concerned about freedom of navigation (which isn't the issue here) you can tell the Arctic Council of which the U.S. is part of to stop trying to prevent freedom of navigation in the Arctic and abandon a toll based system.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:12 am | Reply
  2. deniz boro

    NOT EVEN A LIKEWISE CLUMSY COMMENT. HOW'BOUT AN ARTICLE ON UFO WATCHING. MIGHT CATCH THE ATTENTION EN'MASSE.

    August 14, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Reply
  3. J. Foster Dulles

    What this country needs to do is to stand on the sidelines and let China and it's Southeastern Asian neighbors work out their own differences. We also need to ignore these right-wing idiots here who want to butt into every problem in the world. Enough is enough already!

    August 14, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Reply
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      August 17, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Reply
      • Patrick

        I see that you managed to leave my name out of your list above, Phunnie boy. Don't you like me?

        August 18, 2012 at 3:43 am |
  4. Baraku

    Some think tanks in Australia suggested that China as a growing power should be given enough living space, and its neighbor should give away some of their territories like the South China Sea area. If Australians are sensitive about China's feelings, why don't they cede some of their own territories to China, instead of those belonging to smaller states? They are very comfortable of suggesting giving away other people's territory. What would they feel if China will start to claim Darwin with naval ships backing up the claim? Philippine civilian ships can't even traverse the waters within their exclusive economic zone safely without some Chinese surveillance ship asking them to leave so called Chinese territory. Australia deals with China as if that communist state is not run by thugs. The history of China was never peaceful. These are violent people.

    August 14, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Reply
    • Peace

      Exactly, their thousand years of history was a repeated episode of taking territory from each other and oppressing the weak for survival and growth. SCS is an important stepping stone. It is only a matter of time when China is strong enough to confront the US, then nothing will be able to stop them from expanding their territory further south.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:16 am | Reply
    • Backtou

      Let me write your prequel story: The natives shared their land with Europeans, Europeans agreed to split the lands without wars, history everywhere was tranquil and everyone got along except in China where it was a violent civilization (oxymoron).

      August 15, 2012 at 3:34 am | Reply
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      August 17, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Reply
  5. Arnel

    Did we come this far in our Judeo-Christian history just to surrender our values to an atheist state in the end? Restart the crusades.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:56 am | Reply
    • Swordfish

      Count me in. Where will I enlist?

      August 15, 2012 at 4:38 am | Reply
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        August 17, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  6. Peace

    The aggressor in SCS is China, what else the State Department can say? Both Vietnamese and Chinese oil exploration lots are well within their national water. Plus, China has been bullying Vietnamese and Philippine fishing boats and oil exploration ships for years with the intention to force them to fire the first shot, so they have an excuse to attack these countries militarily to steal their sovereign water. Vietnam/Philippine were not stupid to fall into their trap. That angers the out-of-patience China and now China decides to go in by full force by recent aggressive activity that concerns the State Department.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:34 am | Reply
    • Peace

      I mean ... "Both Vietnamese and Philippine oil exploration lots are well ..."

      August 15, 2012 at 3:36 am | Reply
    • james

      You spoke like you knew the truth, but you don't.

      September 16, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Reply
  7. Bhadloch

    Are you comfortable having a drunk school bus driver drive your kids to school? Are you willing to let your friend who is many times more handsome than you to stay in your house to protect your wife while you are away on a business trip? Would you agree that the top drug dealer in your town will be the new police chief? Would you agree that China will soon run the UN, the world, and your lives?

    August 15, 2012 at 5:01 am | Reply
  8. dechinafication

    Start the process of dechinafication in your household by not buying Chinese products. If you are an American patriot, pull out your investment out of that country. If you want cheap labor, there is no shortage in the Philippines and Vietnam. They will even work for you for free if you are nice enough.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:50 am | Reply
  9. Shinning Light!

    Hmmmm fair article. Though a better idea for the US would be not getting involved at all. Since well, the US is counting on the tensions in SE Asia for weapon sales, the only visible industry that the US still exports products from, yay?

    August 15, 2012 at 10:11 am | Reply
  10. dudeknows

    It's time to declare war against china. Dude just release nuclear bomb to their country. Then theirs no problem and 'PEACE' will come.

    August 15, 2012 at 11:12 am | Reply
    • Idiot Trolling

      ^ Example of warmonger, who doesn't care that the whole world would be destroyed if there was a nuclear war. Do America really need more dudes that knows nada?

      August 15, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  11. Joe Collins

    China keeps pushing its luck against the US. Maybe PRC goverment thinks they can now bully the United States because of the trillion dollars debt the US owe to them..... keep pushing you little maggots and watch how your faux economic strength collapse in a week after an allied economic blockade is put on your sorry communist country.

    August 15, 2012 at 11:27 am | Reply
    • Idiot Trolling

      ^ Example of the holier than thou in America. Psss, the world doesn't revolve around you! And America isn't first in anything...important such as education. You can go on about faux economic stength you want, but China is growing, the US is not.
      What about all those faux reasons that's keeping the UN because of the US in the Middle East? Clean up your own act first.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
    • Patrick-2

      @Joe Collins above. You are is another shining example of the ignorance of mainstream America! No wonder the Tea Party Movement continues to flourish. Your arrogance and self righteousness is extremely nauseating to say the least!

      August 15, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Reply
      • Jason

        South China Sea issue, do not need Hillary interference!

        August 26, 2012 at 4:46 am |
  12. charlesedward77

    A coalition of Asean/US war against China will be a good thing, so that we can ban all their products from entering the western world. And it will be a good time to bring back the manufacturing to where it used to belong. remember cheap products aren't cheap if you do not have a job... China doesn't deserve progress , they become more bully as they grow.. Well what would you expect from a country that has no religion, where its only purpose on life is to multiply and eat everything that moves..

    August 15, 2012 at 11:59 pm | Reply
    • Patrick-2

      Gee charlesedward77, you're another shining example of that weak minded, belligerent Tea Party mentality. It is we Americans who are the world's foremost bullies, not the Chinese or anyone else! You ought to be ashamed to exibit such ignorance here!

      August 16, 2012 at 4:55 am | Reply
      • LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL

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        August 16, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  13. Kirl L.

    I like the part where the author forgot to mention that Vietnam and Philippines are developing the resources within their EEZ, and it is their legally owned zones that china is infringing upon with the nine dash claims.

    Its not like the Philippines is sending fishing boats off the coast of Hongkong or Hainan to fish, its the other way around.

    August 16, 2012 at 6:05 am | Reply
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    August 16, 2012 at 10:04 am | Reply
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      August 16, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
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  15. Raj K

    Guys, just remember how China attempted to subdue the Philippines. First they grab their territory, next they prevented the entry of Philippine fruits and barred Chinese tourists from visiting the Philippines. They don't honor business contracts, nor do they care about trade agreements because they thought no country can challenge them now. They expected the Philippines to capitulate, but they forgot Filipinos toppled a dictator because they cannot stomach injustice. Being 90% catholic country, they are not looking forward to accept a Godless ideology.

    If you visit Vietnam today, you will notice that the people are peace loving, in stark contrast to their Chinese neighbors who seem to lack peace of mind in their proclivity to take on the world. Their reaction to Chinese bullying is simply self defense for their sovereign territory.

    Unfortunately, there are states who values economic advantage over sound principles of human rights, freedom, democracy, and justice. Cambodia is one. Australia is accepting the 30 pieces of silver from China. It remains to be seen if Australia will stand for sound principles or will just be a security risk for the rest of the free world.

    August 16, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  16. ivan

    I don't like US policies around the world as a citizen of an eastern state who sees the US as a hegemonic demon. But of course, I may have been fed with biased propaganda from the start as an avid follower of RT. However, the US is the only credible force who can be relied upon for universal human rights protection. Pax Americana is not perfect, but it allowed China, and other nations to flourish economically. It seems that there is really a need to refloat the US economy because a strong USA is our insurance policy against any attempt for Global tyranny.

    August 16, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Reply
  17. Joseph McCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007 ©™/Joe Collins/J. Foster Dulles/Marine5484

    I am a useless piece of camel dung. I post anti American, anti GB, anti semite, anti India, anti modern anything because I am a good moooooslem. I steal people's monikers because I am so ashamed of myself and post the most stupid comment. When people get angry with me, I claim insanity. I am the same guy.

    August 18, 2012 at 8:36 am | Reply
  18. hihumiiroha

    China is cheat, cheap, childish. The Chinese are tyranny and crime-minded people. They stole various rights, from human rights to copyrights. Also stole territories from Tibet,Taiwan,Muslims,neighboring countries. They deny non-Chinese culture while claiming Chinese rights. Do you still trust China?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:09 am | Reply
    • james

      What an ass* ... get the facts straight before posting.

      September 16, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Reply
  19. Whitby & Hesperus ©

    We continue to be of the opinion that India is a zero sum event in history and that a break up of sorts is the optimum way to maximize its potential for the people. The current events in India reinforce our belief that the inevitable implosion of India has begun and the beginning of the end state is upon us. Whether that will be nirvana that most of us believe it will, is yet to be seen. But this we will say. This defragmentation of India will unleash boundless opportunities and uber economic demand that will be beneficial to US and Europe and help pull them out of current recessionary malaise. We pray for the events to unfold peacefully and in a harmonious manner for the people of India and its neighbors.

    September 13, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  20. El Capitan ♠

    China is the next and the only hope left for this world. The existing paradigm has failed. Poverty, schisms, conflicts, democratic demise is prevalent and the world is a divided place. We need change. Change from status quo. Change from the UN system. Change from current superpower imbalance and ineffectiveness. In this context, everything else becomes redundant and irrelevant. Whether China is masculine or feminine or whose daughter is of minimal importance. What is of importance is the fact that China has come a long way in the past 15 years. The system works: the economic model is proven, the political system clicks, social structure is progressive though not perfect. Let us give them a chance and see what they can do for us. Let us celebrate their arrival and give them kudos for what they have achieved so far. Most importantly, let’s hope and pray they continue to bless us with their vision and passion. In God We Trust.

    September 13, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Reply
  21. Quy

    Here are the simple messages to the chinese men.
    1)You should learn to live in peace and harmony with your neighboring countries.
    2) You should give respects to others before you receive respects from others.
    3) You should learn the past lessons from your histories between Viet Nam and china that though Viet Nam has been repeatedly invaded by your blood-thirsty leaders; yet, Viet Nam still stands and We ,the Vietnamese People both in Viet Nam and around the world, will not tolerate this kind of aggressive, Hitler-like behaviors of your race. We will follow many of our Heroes in the past footsteps that we will teach you the kind of lessons you and your ancestors tasted in the past. In case you are intentionally forgetting your histories; let's us help you to remember the one word "DEFEAT" which you and your ancestors are very familiar with!!!!

    September 16, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
    • james

      China is NOT interested in your dam* f* country, so stop lying there you little giant.

      September 16, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Reply
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