Tensions Rising on the South China Sea

When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined Washington’s goals in Asia in a Foreign Policy essay titled “America’s New Pacific Century” last month, she devoted a large portion of the manifesto to U.S.-China relations and ways in which America intends to “translate positive words into effective cooperation” with China going forward. Clinton expanded beyond the context of bilateral relations with China, as she made clear America’s intention to also engage multilateral channels to address the region’s social, political, economic and security issues. One short statement, seemingly harmless and lost between other headline issues, has since served as a lynchpin for brewing regional instability, a lack of “positive words,” and aggressive foreign policy commentary in the Chinese press. The statement addressed the South China Sea and America’s intention to play an active role in its affairs:

Our focus on developing a more results-oriented agenda has been instrumental in efforts to address disputes in the South China Sea. In 2010, at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, the United States helped shape a regionwide effort to protect unfettered access to and passage through the South China Sea, and to uphold the key international rules for defining territorial claims in the South China Sea’s waters. Given that half the world’s merchant tonnage flows through this body of water, this was a consequential undertaking. And over the past year, we have made strides in protecting our vital interests in stability and freedom of navigation and have paved the way for sustained multilateral diplomacy among the many parties with claims in the South China Sea, seeking to ensure disputes are settled peacefully and in accordance with established principles of international law.

Even before Clinton’s “New Pacific Century” hit newsstands, Chinese media organs had begun to bang a confrontational drum. In the English-language edition of Global Times, an arm of the government’s propaganda apparatus, a late September opinion piece suggested that time had come for China to “reason, think ahead and strike first” to deter any advancement from its rivals in the area. Global Times is no small-time leaflet catering to the fringe of China’s Communist Party, as attached to the party as it may be. It is China’s third largest paper by circulation, dubbed “China’s Fox News” by Foreign Policy, and a frequent sounding board for Chinese nationalism.

Clinton’s “New Pacific Century” didn’t exacerbate dynamics in the South China Sea, then, but it didn’t help either. In the weeks since its publication, several events have caused tensions to rise and China’s state-run media to attack the issue with a steady stream of rhetorical brinksmanship historically reserved for cross-Strait relations with Taiwan. First, an opinion piece in The People’s Daily responded to Clinton’s essay and urged the United States to “play a more constructive role in promoting the regional economic development and cooperation” rather than “expanding its military presence to show off its irreplaceability because it has proven to be a dead end.”

Then China turned the offensive on its Asian neighbors, many of which dispute ownership of the scattered islands and accompanying rights to the wealth of natural resources contained in the waters of the South China Sea. When the Philippines denied the need for a formal apology after an incident in a section of the Spratly Islands (Which the Philippines and China both claim, along with Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei) involving one of its naval vessels and a band of Chinese fishing boats, chiefly because it believed the Chinese boats had intruded on Philippine waters, Chinese authorities angrily demanded that it return the boats and “handle related issues.” A similar incident with South Korea (over territory in the East China Sea) and Vietnam (which earlier this month signed an agreement with India to jointly develop several oil projects in the South China Sea) prompted another warning, via the Global Times, that China would not hesitate to order military action “if a situation turns ugly.”

How did the Philippines and Vietnam react to China’s advice? In a move perhaps lifted from the playbook of Clinton’s “New Pacific Century,” the two signed several agreements to enhance peaceful cooperation on the seas between them, building on other previous agreements signed among ASEAN members. Multilateral diplomacy, alive and well, produced right in China’s face just a day after the Global Times piece instructed the region not to exploit “China’s mild diplomatic stance.” China welcomed diplomacy, but only if the countries involved negotiated directly with Beijing rather than with one another. The same goes for foreign oil companies that seek to explore the disputed waters.

Finally, or rather, most recently, focus shifted back to the United States. A Global Times Op-Ed on October 30 called out America and its regional allies for holding joint military exercises in the South China Sea, particularly accusing the United States of striking a dangerous balance in the region when it “ultimately has no courage to stir up military conflict with China.” Even mentioning “America’s New Pacific Century” directly, the author recommended that China “stop insisting on sticking to peace when other countries are challenging our bottom line again and again.”

The aforementioned events, all occurring over the span of the past 3-4 weeks, lend further evidence to claims earlier this year by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ Ian Storey that tensions on the South China Sea are higher than at any point since the Cold War. BBC News noted today that “the peaceful nature of China’s rise is starting to be questioned” in the region, and added that “China may have found in the South China Sea dispute an arena to test US resolve.” Recent posturing with regards to the South China Sea comes at a tenuous moment, with the military seen to be gaining influence over policy making in a political system on the verge of a leadership transition. And with these waters only growing in importance to global trade and as the shipping backbone of Asia’s export-led economies, words in the Chinese press mouthpieces take on increased importance. While the South China Sea may never eclipse Taiwan in terms of importance to China’s perceived sovereignty, here’s predicting it will garner a few more paragraphs of attention when the U.S. offers up its next platform on affairs in Asia-Pacific.