Roiling the South China Sea

The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia’s only regional security mechanism, is often derided as a mere “talk shop,” where diplomats gather to discuss security concerns but never actually do anything about them. At this year’s annual foreign ministers’ meeting, which convened late last month in Hanoi, words were enough to cause a considerable stir. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s assertion of U.S. interests in the South China Sea, and her call for the resolution of territorial disputes there have been interpreted as a direct challenge to China. Beijing’s readiness to see an affront is revealing of its mentality.

The South China Sea is one of the world’s strategic waterways. One-third of world shipping transits its waters, making it the second most-used sea lane in the world. Japan and its Northeast Asian neighbors depend on the traffic of goods through the area. Some 500 million people depend on the waters for their food and livelihoods. In addition to rich fishing grounds, the seabed is thought to contain huge oil and natural gas reserves.

Those riches are partially responsible for the competing claims to islands that dot the South China Sea. Six states — Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — have staked claims. China and Vietnam have clashed repeatedly over the Spratly Islands; in 1988 a battle claimed more than 70 Vietnamese lives. Rivals have built up facilities on the territories under their control — “fishermen’s huts” look a lot like military facilities. The need to defend those holdings has driven defense procurement policies among claimants and it is possible to discern what looks like an arms race in the area.

Rivals have been talking about their claims for nearly two decades. In 2002, China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a declaration on a code of conduct for the South China Sea that bound signatories to avoid activities that would increase tensions and to resolve disputes peacefully. Significantly, the 2002 agreement is not a code of conduct, although the document calls on the signatories to make efforts to turn it into one. A gap exists between “a declaration” and a code of conduct; thus every government has taken various efforts to build up its claim to the various island territories.

While there are multiple and sometimes overlapping claims, China has preferred bilateral over multilateral negotiations. That makes sense: In a bilateral setting, Beijing can easily overwhelm its negotiating party. While ASEAN nations understand the need to stand together as a counterweight against China, the temptation to break away to try to strike a better deal has been overwhelming — and unsuccessful.

The U.S. has maintained a hands-off posture, reiterating its interest in freedom of navigation without weighing in on the merits of any particular claim (although its alliance with the Philippines means Washington could become involved if Manila’s territory was seized or encroached upon). That seemingly disengaged position came to an end with Mrs. Clinton’s reminder that “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” Calling the resolution of the territorial disputes “a leading diplomatic priority,” she offered to help find a solution to the long-standing dispute.

There are a number of explanations for the shift in the U.S. position. China has long laid claim to the entire sea: Some Chinese maps show it as a virtual Chinese lake. Beijing has become increasingly assertive in its efforts to control the area, harassing U.S. survey ships operating in international waters. The reported assertion by China earlier this year that the South China Sea was among its “core interests” may have also driven the U.S. to reassert its own interests. U.S. companies have also reportedly been threatened by Beijing for working with its rivals to exploit minerals in the area.

The new position is a victory for Vietnam, which has been one of the governments pushing back against China. Ten other nations attending the ARF voiced support for Mrs. Clinton’s remarks.

That enraged China. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called the remarks an “attack” on China. That 12 nations would take the same position against China has contributed to the view in Beijing that the diplomatic attack was premeditated.

That defensiveness is revealing. If China truly seeks to settle these disputes peacefully and fairly, it should welcome international mediation and the assistance of a nation like the U.S. that has no immediate stake in the outcome. If Washington is considered tainted, then the claimants should be able to agree on a neutral arbiter who could help them reach a mutually acceptable solution. Such a deal would strengthen international law regarding territorial disputes, build confidence among the claimants and reduce tension. It would go a long way toward demonstrating China’s good faith to all its neighbors. It is hard to figure out why Beijing opposes such a solution.