By Gregory Poling
CSIS hosted its fifth annual South China Sea conference on July 21. The event garnered more interest and a considerably larger audience—both in CSIS’s at-capacity conference room and online—than its four predecessors. Interest in the conference reflected the wider discussion on the South China Sea among policy communities in Washington and around the Asia Pacific—discussions that have risen to the top of the strategic agenda in many capitals.
The unprecedented reclamation work China embarked on a year and a half ago in the Spratlys has altered the dynamics of the disputes and raised new worries about Beijing’s intentions. The expansion of China’s seven occupied features will allow it far more power projection capacity in disputed waters, and will undoubtedly lead to higher tensions and more frequent run-ins between China’s military and paramilitary forces and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
The reclamation also creates increased concerns about China possibly impinging on freedom of navigation in the future, including the right of U.S. and regional militaries to freely operate in the South China Sea. Most worrying, it means that there is no going back to the status quo ante of 2009 or 2010. The disputes cannot be indefinitely frozen: either the situation will continue to deteriorate or claimants will establish a long-term system to manage it.
It was clear from several of the conference’s expert panel discussions as well as the keynote speech by Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA) that the South China Sea disputes are now being seen as an acute threat to regional security as well as to the interests of non-claimant countries including Australia, Japan, and the United States. This is an important shift; for most of the policy community the South China Sea has been seen until recently as a slow-moving and low-priority threat that could be safely kicked down the road.
But the palpable concern over China’s island building has added a sense of urgency to thinking about the disputes that was lacking even in the wake of China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in May 2012 or during the two-month standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese forces over the deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 drilling rig platform in mid-2014.
The new level of attention being paid to the South China Sea disputes comes as a welcome relief to those who have been concerned about the growing tensions over the last six years. But it also carries the risk of oversimplification. The claims of six different players in the South China Sea, and the web of historical, legal, economic, and security issues underlying them, make the disputes uniquely complicated. They have no short-term solutions. Any successful policy must distinguish between immediate needs—deterring Chinese aggression, reassuring claimants of U.S. commitment, and preventing tensions from increasing further—from long-term interests—preserving the global maritime commons, convincing all parties to bring claims into conformity with international law, and establishing a long-term system to manage disputed waters and seabed.
Overall, CSIS’s conference gave reason for optimism on this count. Several speakers on each of the day’s panels highlighted the complexity of the disputes and explored long-term policy options. While it is clear that U.S. policy is still evolving, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel underscored that the administration is playing the long game; it recognizes that high tensions and provocations are the new normal in the South China Sea.
The United States’ most vital interests—to protect freedom of navigation, preserve international law and norms, and convince China to rise cooperatively rather than at its neighbors’ expense—are shared by partners throughout the region. The success or failure of Washington’s South China Sea policy, or that of Canberra, Manila, Hanoi, or Tokyo for that matter, cannot be effectively judged week to week or month to month, but over the course of several years. Maintaining high-level focus over that timespan will be a key challenge for both those making and those informing policy.
Mr. Gregory B. Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.