China vs US: military conflict in the South China Sea

Source: The World Outline

Aircraft-carrier.5This article will examine how the South China Sea dispute between China and some of its immediate neighbours can help shed some light on both US-China conflicting maritime and security interests and the dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region.

Following several clashes in the South China Sea with the US such as the 2001 Hainan island incident which involved the collision of a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a PLA naval F-8 fighter and the 2009 Impeccable incident where Chinese vessels aggressively maneuvered in close proximity to the US Naval Ship Impeccable, serious concerns were raised over China’s prolific rise and it responses. Increased focus on Asia by the US could lead to confrontations in an environment where “every action has unintended consequences and second and third order effects”.

When former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton spoke at the East-West center in Hawaii in October 2010 she emphasized three key elements of the US engagement in Asia. The US’s relationship with its allies, their relations with partners across the Asia pacific region and US participation in the region’s multilateral institutions such as ASEAN, APEC and EAS.

There has been much talk of the US’s pivot to Asia, spurred on by President Obama referring to himself as “America’s first Pacific president.” Certainly it has a nice ring to it, however, in reality the US is not returning to Asia because they never truly left. They have maintained a forward military, political and economic presence in Asia as well as Europe since the Second World War. In short, they have pursued a political and economic open door policy underpinned by the ability to project force outside their own western hemisphere.

The South China Sea comes into play because of its suitability as one of the launch pads for the Chinese navy which has undergone a prioritised fast modernisation since the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, which illustrated the shortcomings of the Chinese capabilities. International relations play out in the intersection between politics and international law.

Certainly the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) has regulated many aspects of naval interstate behaviour, but it is silent on the matter of military operations in a foreign state’s EEZ (exclusive economic zone), leaving it to state practice and subsequent developments in customary law. This was clearly demonstrated in the two previous incidents where both interpretations conflict with China’s right to regulate foreign military activities in their EEZ whereas the US does not.

Early this year China’s navy conducted operations inside US EEZ, however it is unclear if it was a mere one time indiscretion or an indication of a policy change. The South China Sea however is not only a matter of the US and China working it out, but of how the region reacts to their respective behaviors.

A brief recap of the US’s and China’s major interest include in the case of the US, an interest in freedom of navigation for civil and military vessels as well as obligations with regards to existing alliances and partnerships in the region since adherence to them relates to their state credibility in the future.

In the case of China there is an expectation that their growth and development in the economic sphere should be supported and safe guarded by a capability to project force, particular in terms of resource supply and maritime trade, which translate into a stronger naval presence. The South China Sea is central to cementing naval strength and move the first line of defense beyond the coast of mainland China.

In relation to US-China relations, the discussion of the South China Sea territorial dispute between China and the other claimant states; the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, is primarily a question of state security. Certainly the abundant oil, gas and fish stock in the area add to the complexity of the issue, but this is first and foremost a discussion of the US and China’s interests.

When looking at how their interests conflict, what stands out is the US’s historical presence in the region illustrated by alliances, partnerships and increased interest in regional multilateral organizations. China’s assertive and aggressive behaviour, especially in the South and East China Sea, has pushed their neighbours towards the US, while instilling fear amongst the Chinese that the US would seek an containment policy equal to it employed against the Soviet Union during the cold war. This does not necessarily correspond to a self fulfilling prophecy, but it highlights the complexity of the relationship.

As former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton once stated there is a need to “build trust and establish rules of the road as our militaries operate in greater proximity”, which mirrors and highlights that the 2002 code of conduct for the claimant states in the South China Sea dispute is still incomplete in the sense that it is unspecific and non binding.

As such the next few years will see the US’s and China’s interest interact in an unregulated and somewhat volatile environment of the South China Sea dispute, while the claimant nations will continue to push their individual agendas.

Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

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