ASEAN’s South China Sea ulcer


July 27, 2016

COMMENT: Why the gloom and doom about ASEAN just because the regional organisation is unable to craft and issue a joint statement on the question of the South China Sea.

That is not unusual. Members can agree to disagree and yet ASEAN can remain a cohesive and purposeful organisation to serve the common interest of its members. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia is a key document that forms the glue that binds members and its partners reinforced by the ASEAN Charter. The ASEAN way operates on consensus, consultation, and dialogue.

ASEAN is, therefore, not structured like the European Union centered on a huge and overpowering bureaucracy in Brussels. One of the reasons for BREXIT is the United Kingdom’s desire to preserve its sovereignty and free itself from mountains of EU rules and regulations. The Jakarta based regional grouping, on the other hand,  is a collection of sovereign and independent nations, each acting in accordance with the dictates of their respective national interest, yet agreeing to come together to pursue their collective interest to preserve regional peace, security and stability, and promote trade and investment for socio-economic development. So far, ASEAN is a success story. Since 2015, it is working towards becoming an economic community.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures as he delivers a speech during his presiding over an inauguration ceremony for the official use of a friendship bridge between Cambodia and China at Takhmau, Kandal provincial town south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, file photo.

Cambodia’s Foreign Policy is one of equidistance and neutrality with ASEAN as one of its pillars. (pic above Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia)

South China dispute is a convenient diversion. To label it as ASEAN’s ulcer–academics are prone to using colorful descriptions and cliches–is to me a bit of an exaggeration. To suggest that Cambodia is a surrogate of China is way over the top. It is a sovereign and independent nation and an active member of ASEAN and the United Nations. As such, Cambodia has the right to pursue good relations with China, Russia and United States and other countries. Its foreign policy is one of equidistance and neutrality.

Using labels has never helped to solve problems among nations. One can easily get away by saying that in the case of its dispute with China over the South China Sea, the Philippines is a proxy of the  geo-stategic interest of United States and talking tough because Filipinos think they can rely on US military power to defend their interest. This is to deny that the Philippines may have its rights over the disputed area. What purpose is served if Cambodia, a non claimant state, is seen to be taking sides?  Rightly, Cambodia has been promoting peaceful settlement of disputes and urging China to sign a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea which is an ASEAN initiative. Lest we forget the South China Sea issue simply  put is a complex one, one that will engage our diplomats over a long time. –Din Merican

ASEAN’s South China Sea ulcer?

by Dr Mathew Davies

http://www.newmandala. org

The just concluded meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Vientiane, Lao PDR, looked like it was going to be a high profile failure.  The fear was that the meeting would repeat the 2012 experience of being unable to produce a final communiqué in the face of Cambodia’s insistence that nothing was said that would criticise China over the South China Sea.

Four years later ASEAN may have avoided such a public display of disunity but the released communiqué, together with a JointStatement between ASEAN and China on the SCS, suggest that nothing has been resolved.

The Joint Statement is an insipid document that does nothing to address the cause of the flaring tensions in the region. It is full of bland endorsements of the international legal principles that many have shown a flagrant disinterest in and calls for handling differences in a ‘constructive manner’. If the word constructive in this context is intended to cover the building of military landing strips, the placing of advanced weapons systems and aggressive military posturing, then even given ASEAN’s ability to obfuscate this is a linguistic feat to marvel at.

The Communiqué certainly contains more words on the South China Sea than does the joint statement, a whole eight paragraphs, but it is just as damning. Paragraph 174 notes that only ‘some ministers’ were concerned about ongoing issues (for which read, not the Cambodians). No mention was made of the recent Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the South China Sea which had so decisively rejected China’s claims in the region in favour of the Philippines.

Image result for cambodia and south china sea

Instead all states were called upon to work together to both implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and work towards building a Code of Conduct to better manage affairs. These are laudable in themselves but hardly helpful given the Declaration was agreed in 2002 and has conspicuously failed to curtail regional tensions and any Code of Conduct would seriously curtail China’s freedom of action in the region, which is completely unimaginable at this stage.

ASEAN’s continued failure to address the South China Sea in anything approaching an effective manner is not only a short term failure – it now represents a significant and ongoing risk to ASEAN’s health. This challenge will not take the form of a heart-attack, a sudden and existential shock to the system. Instead it is an ulcer, a constant pain in the guts that threatens, slowly but inexorably, to flood the system with bile. This challenge takes two forms.

First ASEAN from 1967 has always been about protecting the sovereignty of its members from the encroachment of great powers – as Alice Ba has memorably put it the ‘regional resilience’ of Southeast Asia. ASEAN was founded in the belief of regional self-determination – in the wake of colonialism and amidst the Cold War it was a call to ensure that Southeast Asian states remained in the driving seat of Southeast Asian affairs.

Today, with ASEAN member Cambodia serving as a surrogate for China against the interests of other ASEAN members, it no longer seems to be that the organisation serves the interests of the region.

Failure in the South China Sea to offer even the most tepid of support for member states claims against a rising China, especially the more moderate of those claims, strikes at the heart of what ASEAN was designed to achieve. If ASEAN cannot talk of member states sovereign claims against external great powers, what is the value of ASEAN to those members?

Second ASEAN’s own quest for centrality in Asia-Pacific security is revealed to be a fruitless quest when there is so much reason to question even ASEAN’s relevance to the most pressing of regional security issues. ASEAN has always sought to spread the norms of consensus decision making that it is supposed to follow internally across the Asia-Pacific as a way to exert some sort of pacifying effect on the great powers of the region. Yet if those same norms are now preventing ASEAN’s ability to engage in a meaningful way with China in what way can they be said to be positive and worthy of others following?

The South China Sea issue, then, is not an external threat to ASEAN, but an internal health risk – a sore that if not addressed will continue to leach its poison into the regional organisation and the faith that its members have in it.

The challenge is not a superficial one. It is not about whether ASEAN will unite in the defence of an American designed international order as was the wish of Obama at the Sunnylands Summit or whether it will continue to forge its own path.

The challenge is about whether ASEAN can continue to be valued by its members for the reasons it was created – whether it has the strength of purpose to defend its members from external interference, whether it can continue as a vehicle for regional self-determination rather than a generator of regional discord, and whether it can choose centrality over irrelevance.

As with any health risk, this challenge needs to be confronted sooner rather than later and with a coherent measured response, not a random assortment of lowest common denominator actions. I fear that the prognosis has just deteriorated.

Dr Mathew Davies is head of the Department of International Relations in the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

 

The Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Gone So Wrong


July 25, 2016

The Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Gone So Wrong. Why?

It’s been nearly two and a half years since a 777 disappeared over the Indian Ocean. Investigators assured us they’d find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. How were they so wrong?

by  Jeff Wise

It wasn’t supposed to end like to this. Earlier today, ministers from the three nations responsible for finding Malaysia Airlines Flight 370—Australia, China, and Malaysia—announced that they would stop looking for the lost jet once the current 46,000-square-mile search zone is completed this fall. The decision was essentially an acknowledgement that they’d come up empty-handed in their quest to find the plane that disappeared from the face of the Earth in March 2014 with 239 people on board. This after two years of official assurances that success was right around the corner.


Why had ty been so confident in the first place? How could they have been wrong?

Why had they been so confident in the first place? How could they have been wrong? And if the plane isn’t where it was supposed to be, where else could it have gone? We’ve gone through two years of clues and conspiracy theories and false starts. But to understand how we’ve come to this point, it’s necessary to review the clues that search officials possessed, and how they interpreted them.

Calculating the Direction of Flight

There were two reasons why investigators felt certain the plane had flown toward a specific area of the southern Indian Ocean. The first was publicly acknowledged, the second kept secret.

The first reason had to do with signals exchanged between the plane and an Inmarsat satellite. On the night of March 8, 2014, 40 minutes after takeoff, MH370 suddenly went electronically dark over the South China Sea. Every form of communication it had with the outside world was turned off. The plane then pulled a 180, flew back over peninsular Malaysia, headed up the Malacca Strait, and disappeared from radar.

Then, surprisingly, three minutes later, it began communicating again. A piece of equipment in the back of the plane called the Satellite Data Unit (SDU) sent a log-on request to an Inmarsat satellite perched in a geosynchronous orbit high above the Indian Ocean. For the next six hours, the SDU stayed in contact, automatically sending intermittent pings that were automatically recorded by Inmarsat computers on the ground.

This handout Satellite image made available by the AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) shows a map of the planned search area for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 on March 24, 2014.

This handout Satellite image made available by the AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) shows a map of the planned search area for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 on March 24, 2014. Getty Images / Australian Maritime Safety Authority

 

America would be Trump’s banana republic


July 24, 2016

America would be Trump’s banana republic

by Fareed Zakaria

http://www.thewashingtonpost.com

Over the years, I have watched campaigns in third world countries in which one candidate accuses the other of being a criminal, sometimes even threatening to jail his opponent once elected. But I cannot recall this happening in any Western democracy until this week. The Republican convention has been colorful and chaotic, but above all, it has been consumed by a vigilante rage, complete with mock prosecutors, show trials and chanting mobs. The picture presented to the world has been of America as a banana republic.

We have descended so far so fast that it is sometimes difficult to remember that this is not normal. It was only eight years ago that the Republican nominee, John McCain, interrupted one of his supporters who claimed that Barack Obama was an Arab and thus suspicious to explain that his opponent was in fact “a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

Contrast that with the tenor of this campaign, which has been set from the top by Donald Trump, who has repeatedly insisted that Hillary Clinton deserves to be in jail. He even promised that were he elected, his Attorney General would reopen the books and “take a very good look” at possibly indicting her, himself having concluded that she is “guilty as hell.” That might have happened in a Latin American country — 30 years ago.

The (just concluded Republican) convention (in Cleveland, Ohio) has been dominated by hatred of Clinton because it is the party’s only unifying idea right now. People have chosen a candidate who does not believe in the ideology that has inspired Republican leaders for decades — free markets and free trade, low taxes, limited government, deregulation, welfare state reform and an expansionist foreign policy.

In a breathtaking interview with the New York Times, Trump announced that he might not honor NATO’s guarantee of security to the United States’ European allies, practically inviting Vladimir Putin to destabilize Eastern Europe. That is a break not just with seven decades of Republican foreign policy but also with a core American commitment that has kept the peace since 1945. It is the most reckless statement made by a presidential candidate in modern times.

And yet, it is hardly surprising. Trump doesn’t even pretend to have an ideology. His main idea is that he is great, and if the country elects him, he will make it greater. “Share my glory,” cries Evita in the Andrew Lloyd Webber production, which is what Trump promises his supporters as well. It is ironic that Trump rails against Latino immigrants given that his campaign seems to mirror those of Latin America’s Peronists, believing in the strongman above any set of ideas.

The Peronist feel is reinforced by the cringe worthy emphasis on Trump’s children, who were filmed throughout the convention smiling beatifically and waving at adoring crowds from the royal box. (Bill Maher makes a similar point.) In good dynastic fashion, they are his key deputies in business and the campaign. As The Post pointed out, “there are as many Trumps speaking . . . as sitting senators.” In fact, a highlight of every evening has been a speech by a member of the family. And while the family got pride of place, Trump retainers were also showcased. Not one of the Republican Party’s five living former nominees (two of whom were presidents) spoke, but the manager of Trump Winery got a nice slot, as did an assistant to the kids.

The Republican Party has given itself up to a single family and its business interests. Its convention has become a prime-time platform for the enhancement of that family’s fame and fortune. Whatever happens to the party, the country and the world, the Trump brand will come out of this election with even greater global celebrity… Fareed  Zakaria

The Republican Party has given itself up to a single family and its business interests. Its convention has become a prime-time platform for the enhancement of that family’s fame and fortune. Whatever happens to the party, the country and the world, the Trump brand will come out of this election with even greater global celebrity, and thus with many more possibilities to affix its name to condos, golf clubs, suits and phony self-improvement courses. In fact, win or lose, one consequence of this election could be that, finally, Donald Trump will be worth what he claims.

 

Rafidah Aziz, CC TOO and Civil Servants of Yore–The Handling of Deviant Muslims


July 19, 2016

Rafidah Aziz, CC TOO and Civil Servants of Yore–The Handling of Deviant Muslims

by KJ John

http://www.malaysiakini.com

I remember, in 1992, some of us made an official fence-mending trip to Australia after Dr Mahathir Mohamad earned the ‘recalcitrant’ label. Our then-international trade and industry minister led the trip. In Perth and Canberra, one of the questions asked by the journalists of the minister was, “Are you a fundamentalist?”

MITI Minister Rafidah Aziz –“An Intellectual and an Intuitive Scholar who understood concepts and ideas”–KJ John

Minister Rafidah Aziz was a lecturer and was supposed to pursue a Colombo Plan scholarship for a doctorate when the then-PM, Hussein Onn, invited her to join his cabinet as Parliamentary Secretary based in the Finance Ministry. She never looked back.

Being also an intellectual and an intuitive scholar, she understood concepts and ideas well. So, most journalists who asked questions without much thought usually got their pound of flesh taken, too. She is the same with journalists as with officers; whether in Malaysia or overseas. Most unassured journalists or officers cannot handle her.

Fundamentalist Muslim

While the words ‘fundamentalist Muslims’ were the phrase of the day then, today’s words are ‘radical Islam’, or even extremist Muslims. Now, if we do not know the factual difference between these concepts; we are going to have serious problems, or as two of our Muslim scholars who are professionals wrote: “We are on the slippery slope and road to anarchy.”

Minister Rafidah was not only smart but was usually a teacher as well with officers and journalists, even though she did never suffer fools. Therefore, she answered the Australian journalist’s question by first explaining that most average Muslims in Malaysia were fundamental Muslims; which means, they believe in the fundamentals of Islam. But she also always clarified that they were not extremist Muslims. What is the difference?

Extremities in science are those who fall outside of two standard deviations of the mean. Please review your basic statistics if you do not follow my argument. Within the normal distribution curve; the middle majority can be divided into two halves, i.e. those who are the early majority and those who are the late majority to any new idea for change. Both groups are fundamentalist Muslims as defined earlier; but they cannot be called extremists.

Extremists are those who take an extreme view of the interpretation of the fundamental precepts of Islam; as in, they are literalists in terms of interpretation of scriptures. They do not believe and argue against any philosophical view of the particular verses of scripture. Theirs is a single and closed interpretation as per their source of authority as interpreters of their scripture.

In that view, only ‘experts’ can interpret scriptures; all others are not qualified. Sounds to me like the Catholic Church before the Copernican revolution.

Finally there are always the radicals in every faith system. Who then are they? These are really anarchists who condemn the entire human enterprise and want to see it destroyed for the promise of what lies ahead; in their view and vision of the other world and for eternity.

They fully and truly believe such in their hearts and minds. They then can also become self-appointed caliphs to usher in their version of their ‘kingdom of God’. They want to see their view of the world established, by the force of their will. It is always a contradiction in terms.

Do we have deviants in Malaysia?

More than 95 percent of Malaysian Muslims are Sunnis and of the Shafie sect in terms of interpretation. Then there are Ismailis, Shiites and Ahmadiyaa. These all however only make up less than 5 percent of Muslims in Malaysia. All Muslims, by official records, make up 62 percent of all Malaysians.

Now, based on the normal distribution curve of Muslims, I suspect about 90 percent belong in the middle majority category and I would call the majority the urban Malay Muslims. These are about equally divided between literalists while the other half are Muslims who consider that verses can be philosophical with their interpretation of and practice of Muslim Scriptures. I would label them conservatives and moderates in terms of interpretation of scripture.

Nonetheless, all 90 percent of them are progressives in terms of interpretation of all Muslim Scriptures in a modern world and view.

Who then are the deviants? In my view, these are pseudo-scholars of Islam but who push their own versions of truth by the sheer use of force of their interpretation but safeguarded by the false idea that only experts of the Quran and Hadith are qualified as interpreters.

They put aside rationalism or the capacity of the human mind to reason and make choices about right and wrong, and instead prefer to assert blind obedience to one set of interpretations; only theirs.

The majority of Malays are not deviant, by any means of differentiation and regardless of who does the classification of typologies. The reality is, however, that in the modern world it is the noisy minority who get heard and voices are amplified. Statistically, these deviants make up less the 2 percent of the entire population of Malay Muslims.

Terrorism in Malaysia

Between the years 1948-1960, Malaysia fought against the most militant form of deviants deploying terror that the nation state has ever seen. There were militant Malayans who were committed to communist ideals and standing against colonialism. That period of war against these terrorists was called and declared ‘The Emergency’.

The government representatives then finally met with Chin Peng and they signed a peace accord to officially end that war in 1989. My question to the inspector-general of police (IGP) today is: if our war against communists are over, who then is your new terrorists? Who is the prime target of the Royal Malaysian Police for today and tomorrow? Are you serious about focussing only on the political opposition?

Dear IGP, in the mid-1970s, I used to take our Administrative and Diplomatic Service (PTD) Officers at the National Institute of Public Administration (Intan) to their one-week training at the Police College in Kuala Kubu Baru (KKB). One of the most exciting lecturers was none other than CC Too. I was privileged to have met him in KKB then.

My question to the new Royal Police College is and the IGP is: which room, or library, or which hall in Police College is named after this great man? If none, just please tell me why?

CC Too was born as  (Tan Sri) Too Chee Chew. In January 1957 he was awarded the Member of the British Empire (MBE) and the Panglima Setia Mahkota (PSM) in 1986 which carried the title of Tan Sri. He was head of the Psychological Warfare Division of the police. If anyone Malayan ever was singly responsible to “win the war of hearts and minds in Malaya”, it would be him. We should never forget him for our Merdeka.

He also served as a consultant to the US military at Fort Leavenworth, and in the Vietnam War and also for the Korean War. Do we therefore really need to go to US to learn about how to deal with home-grown radicals and deviants who are deviants, Mr IGP? Please let us honour the man, understand his methodology and apply them to again get rid of deviants from Malaysia.

KJ JOHN, PhD from The George Washington University, Washington  DC, was in public service for 32 years having served as a researcher, trainer, and policy adviser to the International Trade and Industry Ministry and the National IT Council (NITC) of the government of Malaysia. The views expressed here are his personal views and not those of any institution he is involved with. Write to him at kjjohn@ohmsi.net with any feedback or views.

Beijing manipulates Malaysia’s foreign policy to its advantage


July 14, 2016

Beijing manipulates Malaysia’s foreign policy to its advantage

by Philip Bowring (June 15, 2016)

http://www.asiasentinel.com/politics/1mdb-behind-malaysia-asean-capitulation-to-china/

Although China claims vast areas of sea within Malaysia’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone and the Spratly Islands, some of which are occupied by Malaysia, China’s purchase of assets from the scandal-ridden 1MDB has enabled it to manipulate Malaysian foreign policy to its advantage. –Philip Bowring, Asia Sentinel

Malaysia is succumbing to China’s efforts to undermine the solidarity of other littoral states in standing up to China’s aggressive claim to almost the whole South China Sea. Just at the point when China seems likely to face a judgment against it in the case brought by the Philippines in the Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Although China claims vast areas of sea within Malaysia’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone and the Spratly Islands, some of which are occupied by Malaysia, China’s purchase of assets from the scandal-ridden 1MDB has enabled it to manipulate Malaysian foreign policy to its advantage.

ASEAN Solidarity is also being eroded by the election process in the United States, which is bringing into question the American trade and strategic commitments to East Asia, without which none of the ASEAN countries will resist Chinese pressure for long.

On the face of things, ASEAN Foreign Ministers took a firm line with China at their just-ended meeting in Kunming. Their statement after the meeting said they “express their serous concern over recent and ongoing developments that have eroded trust and confidence, increased tension and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.”

“We stressed the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea,” the Ministers said. This, they said, was in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

ASEAN retraction

However, the statement was then retracted by the Ministers in an amazing about turn engineered by Beijing with the help not merely of its usual client states, Cambodia and Laos, but also Malaysia. The retraction was also an astonishing embarrassment for Singapore and its Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. Singapore is current coordinator of the ASEAN-China dialogue.

The Malaysian move followed a remarkable article in The Star newspaper a day earlier by the Chinese Ambassador to Kuala Lumpur, Huang Huikang.  Huang used this platform for an open attack on the Philippines, supposedly a friend and ally of Malaysia. President Benigno S. Aquino III was described as having “acted as a pawn in an outsider’s political strategy” and described the arbitration case as a “farce.” Aquino’s “political legacy will only be a pile of pills from the tribunal.”

Huang went on to praise Malaysia, describing relations with China “the best in history” and urging the incoming Philippine President to follow its example in dealing with China.

President-elect Rodrigo Duterte is wavering in his attitude to China. He clearly wants Chinese money for infrastructure projects that would be forthcoming if he gives ground the sea issue and agrees to bilateral talks, and possible joint resource development. On the other hand, he can hardly walk away from any decision in Philippines’ favor, nor go back on his commitment to the Philippines claim on the Scarborough Shoal, which lies just 120 nautical miles off the coast of Luzon.

Arrogant abuse

The arrogance of Huang in abusing his diplomatic position to attack the President of a neighbor and ASEAN partner should have drawn immediate condemnation from Malaysia. But Huang is accustomed to getting away with this kind of behavior, which suggests he already regards Malaysia as a Beijing tributary and himself as the proconsul. In September 2015, Huang made a highly publicized walk through KL’s Chinatown to indicate that China would look after the interests of its ethnic brethren in Malaysia. Beijing has thereby reversed China’s longstanding commitment not to interfere in other countries internal affairs or use ethnic Chinese minorities for its own political purposes. These are now being used to enhance Chinese interests in claiming a sea whose coastline is only about 25 percent Chinese.

Beijing views Malaysia as the weakest link in the solidarity of maritime states partly by using the position of the Chinese minority as leverage, and partly through the power of money to influence decisions made by the UMNO-led government. The 1MDB case arose at a particularly opportune moment for Beijing, enabling China to come to the rescue of embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Beijing has long focused its military attentions on Vietnam and, more recently with its seizure of Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines. Malaysia has been left alone for now. But Chinese claims are now less of a threat, encompassing as they do waters already exploited by Malaysia as well as others with oil and gas potential, not to forget islands such as Layang-Layang where Malaysia has an airstrip and dive resort. But do not imagine an UMNO government cares about national interests over its own power and money needs.

Hollow Washington

Meanwhile, the US provides little encouragement for a reliable and long-term ally. The emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential nominee is a poor advertisement for western democracy. His anti-Muslim attitudes are offensive to much of Asia, Malaysia included. And his isolationist attitudes suggest that his presidency would see a reduction in the US presence in the region and the withering of the network of cooperation with countries from Japan to Australia and India and including many ASEAN members. President Obama’s “rebalance” Asian rather than Middle East interests would be forgotten.

A US turn away from its traditional promotion of free trade is also a concern. Not merely is Trump critical of free trade agreements but Hillary Clinton too now says she opposes the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), one of the cornerstones of the US tilt towards Asia to meet the challenge of China’s rising influence.

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Conflict in the South China Sea


July 14, 2016

Conflict in the South China Sea

Contingency Planning Memorandum Update

Author: Bonnie S. Glaser, Senior Advisor for Asia, Center for Strategic and International Studies

In April 2015, the author wrote an update to this memo to reflect recent developments in the South China SeaRead: http://www.cfr.org/asia-and-pacific/armed-clash-south-china-sea/p27883

Update :http://www.cfr.org/asia-and-pacific/conflict-south-china-sea/p36377

Conflict in the South China Sea - bonnie-s-glaser-conflict-in-the-south-china-sea

Publisher Council on Foreign Relations Press Release Date April 2015

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea continue to be a source of tension and potential conflict between China and other countries in the region. Though the United States takes no position on sovereignty claims in the South China Sea—including those of its ally, the Philippines—it is deeply interested in maintaining maritime security, upholding freedom of navigation, and ensuring that disputes are settled peacefully. For these reasons, a 2012 Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Contingency Planning Memorandum, “Armed Clash in the South China Sea,” argued that the United States should help lower the risk of conflict in the region, including the potential for dangerous military incidents involving U.S. and Chinese military forces.

New Concerns

Beijing’s intention to exert greater control over the South China Sea appears undiminished. In 2012, China forcibly seized control of the previously unoccupied Scarborough Reef during a standoff with Philippine maritime vessels, despite agreeing to a mutual withdrawal brokered by Washington. China has seemingly been emboldened by this easy, cost-free conquest: it has since begun construction of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago that will enable it to extend the range of the Chinese navy, air force, coast guard, and fishing fleets in just a few years. Once sufficient capabilities are in place for round-the-clock maritime and air presence over the South China Sea, Beijing is likely to declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), similar to the ADIZ it declared over the East China Sea in November 2013. The scale and pace of China’s dredging activity has alarmed rival claimants Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.

The dispute between China and the Philippines over the Second Thomas Shoal deserves immediate attention. Since 1999, a small contingent of Philippine marines has been deployed on a vessel that Manila beached on the submerged reef. In 2014, Chinese coast guard ships attempted unsuccessfully to block delivery of food, water, and fresh troops to the military outpost. The condition of the beached ship is rapidly deteriorating and it is expected to slide into the sea in a matter of months unless it is reinforced. This situation could lead to another confrontation between Chinese and Philippine forces should Beijing decide to seize the shoal. The U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty could be invoked if, for example, a Philippine naval or coast guard vessel is attacked, a Philippine military aircraft is shot down, or members of the Philippine armed forces are injured.

A military clash between China and Vietnam is also a concern. In May 2014, China deployed a deep-sea oil rig in Vietnam’s two hundred–nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), leading to a seventy-three-day crisis in which Chinese and Vietnamese ships rammed each other repeatedly before the rig was withdrawn. Although Vietnam’s military capabilities are dwarfed by China’s, Hanoi is nevertheless determined to defend its maritime rights. Worries persist in Hanoi that Beijing could deploy the oil rig to contested waters again, risking military confrontation. Similar clashes could take place in the nine oil blocks along the coast of Vietnam, for which China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) invited foreign companies in 2012 to seek oil exploration bids, or near the Vietnamese-occupied Vanguard Bank.

In addition, the risk of a dangerous incident involving U.S. and Chinese forces within China’s EEZ remains a concern given the possibility of military escalation. Following several dangerous near-misses—notably in December 2013 involving a Chinese amphibious dock ship and a U.S. guided-missile cruiser and in August 2014 involving a Chinese fighter aircraft and a U.S. surveillance plane—the U.S. and Chinese militaries struck a groundbreaking deal on rules of behavior for safe military encounters between surface naval ships at sea. Such confidence-building measures may help reduce the potential for accidents in the future. However, individual commanders may still display aggressive behavior that could have dire consequences.

Policy Implications

U.S. interests in the South China Sea include freedom of navigation, unimpeded passage for commercial shipping, and peaceful resolution of territorial disputes according to international law. Failure to respond to Chinese coercion or use of force could damage U.S. credibility, not only in Southeast Asia, but also in Japan, where anxiety about intensified activity by Chinese military and paramilitary forces is growing. Conflict in the South China Sea would put at risk the more than $5 trillion in trade that passes through those strategic waters annually. Also at stake is the U.S. relationship with China, including Washington’s efforts to gain greater cooperation from Beijing on global issues such as combating terrorism, dealing with epidemics, confronting climate change, securing a deal on Iran’s nuclear program, and persuading North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons.

Recommendations

Although China may have moderated some of its intimidation tactics for now, it continues to seek greater control over the sea and airspace in the South China Sea. Moreover, various attempts to persuade China, along with the other claimants, to freeze destabilizing behavior such as land reclamation have not succeeded. Beijing continues to drag its feet on negotiating a binding code of conduct (CoC) with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and has rejected Manila’s attempt to resolve its territorial dispute through arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Halting Chinese land reclamation activities may not be possible, but the United States can press China to be transparent about its intentions and urge other nations to do the same. While remaining neutral on sovereignty disputes, the United States should encourage all parties to pursue their claims peacefully and in accordance with international law. The United States should also press China to accept constraints on its behavior in a CoC and dissuade China from taking actions that increase the risk of conflict. Several of the recommendations in CFR’s 2012 analysis of potential conflict in the South China Sea remain to be implemented; in particular, the United States should ratify UNCLOS. In addition, the United States should take the following steps:

  •  In the absence of progress between China and ASEAN on a binding CoC to avert crises in the South China Sea, the United States should encourage ASEAN to develop its own draft CoC containing risk-reduction measures and a dispute-resolution mechanism. The United States should then work with ASEAN to convince Beijing to sign and implement it.
  • The United States should continue to help the Philippines and Vietnam enhance their maritime policing and security capabilities, for example through better surveillance systems, so they can deter and respond to China entering the water and airspace in their EEZs with impunity. Similar assistance should be extended to Malaysia if requested.
  • The United States should be prepared to respond to future Chinese coercive acts including using U.S. naval forces to deter China’s continuing use of “white hulled” paramilitary vessels. Other responses, such as imposing economic sanctions on Chinese energy companies should they drill in contested waters, are also conceivable but should not be specified in advance.
  • The United States should state clearly and publicly that a declaration of an ADIZ by Beijing over the South China Sea would be destabilizing and would not be recognized by Washington.
  • To further reduce the risk of an accident between U.S. and Chinese forces, the two militaries should implement their joint commitment to conclude an agreement on air-to-air encounters by the end of the year.