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Conflict in the South China Sea

By James H. Nolt

This past Tuesday (Oct. 27) witnessed the first of what may become a series of incidents between the U.S. and China around two artificial islands China is constructing on top of normally submerged reefs. According to China, these new islands are part of its sovereign territory, but the U.S. disputes this. In order to enforce freedom of navigation for all ships and aircraft in the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy instituted the first of what are expected to be repeated voyages of warships accompanied by naval aircraft through the disputed waters.

The Chinese reaction to this first armed incursion to the vicinity of the islands since 2012 was brisk and angry. Chinese TV news even suggested that China does not fear war with the U.S., although I consider such remarks hyperbole for domestic consumption. The American ambassador in Beijing was summoned and warned by Zhang Yusui, China’s vice-foreign minister, that the incursion was “extremely irresponsible.”

The overall tenor of official American announcements regarding the incident are that it represents a routine and longstanding U.S. policy to sail freely in international waters. Officials suggested that such incursions are likely to be repeated.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea governs international law regarding portions of the sea that may be claimed by adjacent nations. The law allows countries to control navigation within 12 miles of their territory, but it also clearly states that artificial islands cannot be the basis for extending national claims.

On the other hand, the Law of the Sea is murky about definitive principles for establishing sea boundaries, so throughout much of the South China Sea and in other disputed coastal waters, multiple overlapping claims contend for recognition. The U.S. does not take an official position on which of the various claimants should prevail, but it does asset that freedom of navigation cannot be abridged by building artificial islands across the shallow areas of the sea.

The islands at the center of this week’s dispute, Mischief and Subi Reefs, have been built up by China with new facilities including docks and airbases capable of basing a few military fighters. These are part of a group of small islands and reefs of the Spratly archipelago claimed by several countries. Other countries in the region have also built facilities on other islands and reefs in that shallow sea, including Vietnam, Taiwan, and a U.S. ally, the Philippines. Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia also assert claims in the South China Sea that overlap with those of some of the other countries. China’s claims conflict with all of these.

The main interest of the parties in claiming the seabed is in securing exclusive rights to exploit the oil thought to exist under much of the South China Sea. An exclusive economic zone can be claimed out to 200 miles from national territory according to the Law of the Sea, but China’s claim for nearly the entire sea relies on claiming very tiny uninhabited islands and reefs as national territory, because otherwise most of the South China Sea is much farther than 200 miles from the large Chinese island province of Hainan.

The U.S. has no particular stake in how the seabed resources and fishing rights are distributed among the various claimants, but it is concerned with construction of artificial islands that might eventually obstruct international passage through large portions of this very busy international waterway. Of course, in peacetime it is very unlikely that mercantile trade would be obstructed by any power claiming exclusive navigation rights in the sea, so the issue is of greatest relevance to regional navies, including the U.S. Navy. Naval ships typically are not permitted to sail through the territorial waters of foreign countries without explicit invitation. China does not welcome U.S. ships to snoop around the facilities it is constructing in the South China Sea.

For some time now there has been a debate within the Obama administration about how to respond to the Chinese buildup on the artificial islands. Apparently the hawks finally prevailed, perhaps in part because the U.S. is frustrated by alleged and brazen Chinese hacking into confidential security records of millions of U.S. government employees. President Obama raised this issue during Chinese President Xi’s recent visit to Washington, but apparently was dissatisfied with the Chinese response.

China’s verbal reaction is forceful. If the U.S. does as it says it will and continues incursions within 12 miles of the islands China claims, China will be forced to either back down or escalate.

Despite the bluster of Chinese TV news, actual fighting is unlikely. If China were to escalate to force, the U.S. forces in the area would prevail since China has an almost complete lack of naval air power that could reach the area. Any one of the ten active U.S. aircraft carriers could tip the balance decisively in favor of the U.S. Navy. Most Chinese land-based aircraft are too short-ranged to operate over the South China Sea. U.S. Navy submarine and anti-submarine capabilities are also far in advance of China’s. Unlike during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the considerable U.S. qualitative lead is reinforced by quantitative superiority in key weapons systems, such as aircraft, aircraft carriers, and submarines.

On the other hand, there are many actions short of war that China could initiate to vent its frustration with the armed incursions. It could avoid cooperating with the U.S. in the upcoming climate talks at Copenhagen, where President Obama is hoping for an international agreement to augment his foreign policy legacy. China could also increase obstacles to American companies doing business in China, in the hope that U.S. companies would lobby Washington to desist in the provocations.

Having made a highly boisterous protest about the first U.S. Navy incursion, it is difficult for China to back down and say or do nothing more if the provocations continue, as expected. If China acquiesces, then the U.S. will de facto assert the inefficacy of the Chinese territorial claim. On the other hand, tit-for-tat annoyances may not achieve the Chinese aim, since U.S. policy makers have undoubtedly anticipated some such reaction and were not deterred by the prospect. The deep U.S. irritation at Chinese hacking has undoubtedly contributed to U.S. intransigence.

Thus I expect the South China Sea pot will continue boiling, generating mutual irritation, possibly escalating to some economic effect, but without any decisive resolution.

*****

*****

James H. Nolt is a senior fellow at World Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at New York University.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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