The South China Sea: A Good Time for Some New Thinking by Washington

By Carla Freeman

Littoral combat ship U.S.S. Freedom in Malaysia during the CARAT 2013 exercises on June 15. Relative calm in the South China Sea may provide an opportunity for the United States to engage in quiet dialogue on this issue. Source: PACOM’s flickr photostream, U.S. government work.

After May’s choppy waters, recent weeks have seen a rare patch of calm in the South China Sea. The respite from immediate crisis offers a chance for dialogue among all countries– perhaps some of this can take place at next week’s ASEAN Regional Forum in Brunei, which Secretary of State Kerry will attend. For the United States, it is also a chance to engage in some self-assessment about its regional policy– to ask itself whether the way it is approaching the South China Sea’s contested waters supports its national interests and broader goals for regional engagement.

American interests lie in promoting regional stability. They also include ensuring that American power remains at a level enabling it to hinder unilaterally assertive behavior by other powers toward their neighbors as well as to preserve freedom of navigation in the sea — both to protect the flow of commerce and for military purposes.

These objectives appear compatible; in reality they are difficult to reconcile amid the shift in the regional balance of power associated with China’s rise. Good U.S.-China relations are vital to regional stability, but at the same time China represents the principal challenger to America’s relative influence in the region. The tensions in U.S. objectives vis-à-vis the region have been evident in its strategic rebalance to Asia.There attendant efforts to revivify America’s regional role in part through reinvigorating alliances and strategic partnerships with countries in the region have injected additional friction into the bilateral relationship as China interpreted the “rebalance” as an American effort to build a regional coalition against it.

Meanwhile, the vital alliance relationships that for decades have undergirded America’s role in keeping regional tensions at bay now complicate Washington’s efforts to preserve neutrality on territorial disputes in the region and risk embroiling the United States in regional conflicts. At the same time, countries in the region are wary of the United States hijacking the issue (inadvertently or deliberately) as they all seek to manage their own independent relationships with each other as well as with China. Nor is there consensus within ASEAN about what role Washington might play in helping to resolve the disputes resulting from what are in some cases overlapping claims.

To date U.S. policy has unfolded as if these contradictions do not exist. On the one hand, civilian and military officials have sent signals of affinity and commitment, along with new military hardware, to our regional allies and partners. In criticizing behavior in the sea, U.S. diplomats have also directed their best harsh rhetoric toward China. On the other hand, Washington has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to good U.S.-China relations, most recently in the intimate tête-à-tête between presidents Obama and Xi at Sunnylands.

The downside of this approach has been apparent. There have been encouraging indications that progress toward a formal code of conduct could be forthcoming. However, overall regional tensions have not only persisted but arguably intensified following the new attention given by Washington to the contest in the South China Sea.

So how might the United States usefully rethink its approach? Compartmentalization is in order. Washington should address disputes in the South China Sea in relationship to but not as part and parcel of its broad strategic objectives. And, it should resist the reflex to perceive the outcome of these disputes as a test of U.S. power and influence against that of a rising China. A shift in the emphasis of U.S. diplomacy away from official reactions within international and regional fora to the particular dynamics between countries in the region toward the role of dispute mechanisms, and international law in particular, as tools in managing these disputes offers the United States a more constructive role– one that would of course be enhanced by its own ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In the meanwhile, in the spirit of promoting bilateral understanding between the United States and China and in the interest of reducing regional tensions, the United States should move swiftly to reach agreement with China on rules of the road for their own bilateral maritime interactions in the region. Recognizing the tangle of relationships and issues along with the risks and potentially grave costs of escalation in the South China Sea, the United States should seek agreement with China on refraining from mutually provocative actions where these disputes are concerned. The fifth Strategic and Economic Dialogue to be held the week of July 8-12 between senior officials from the two sides provides an early opportunity to move forward toward these goals.

Dr. Carla Freeman is Executive Director of the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute, and concurrently, Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of the China Studies Program for Johns Hopkins SAIS. Read Dr. Freeman’s thoughts on what China can constructively do in the South China Sea here.


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