By: David Brown

Hopeful of a rhetorical rumble between the US and China, reporters flocked to cover the 2015 Shangri-La dialogue. Challenged to put things into context in a few short paragraphs that justified their business class flights all the way to Singapore, the journos were inclined to hype the drama.

Preliminaries – well-publicized US overflights of China’s artificial south sea islets, China’s first-ever defense white paper, loosely confrontational talk in Beijing and Honolulu – seemed to promise more verbal fireworks at East Asia’s premier strategic chatfest.

However, perhaps sobered by what the UK’s Independent called a now-palpable “potential for disaster,” participants this year were uncharacteristically civil in their remarks. Ashton Carter, the Harvard professor who’s been the US Secretary of Defense since February, took pains to explain why the US wasn’t keen on China’s quest to turn the world’s largest enclosed sea – Asia’s  Mediterranean – into its own private lake. Carter wasn’t confrontational. He just laid out the facts. He stressed that pumping sand onto reefs to make artificial islands didn’t create sovereign rights over land or adjacent water.

Carter deployed the best explanation yet of why the US has re-engaged, and will remain engaged in the region. In particular, it is because neither might nor past injury makes right: China can’t claim rights now that it never exercised even in its imperial past, nor can it brush aside the legal framework erected by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“Disputes should be resolved peacefully,” said Carter, “through diplomacy, not aggression or intimidation. All countries should have the right to freedom of navigation and overflight so global commerce can continue unimpeded. And all nations should be able to make their own security and economic choices free from coercion. 

“These are the rights of all nations. They are not abstractions, and nor are they subject to the whims of any one country. They are not privileges to be granted or withdrawn by any country….”

Analysts on the scene report that Admiral Sun Jianguo and the rest of China’s representatives came locked and loaded for battle, but seem to have been disarmed by Carter’s matter-of-fact discussion of how “the militarization of disputed features” is a really bad alternative to negotiation of territorial rights and the evolution of a regional “architecture where everyone rises and everyone wins.”

Invented Histories

As the defense lords of two dozen nations convened in Singapore, editorial comment throughout the Western world lamented that the status of a handful of reefs, rocks and islets conceivably could spark a shooting war between China, the US, and assorted local American partners. They are right to worry. Remarkably, the New York Times, Independent, Guardian, London Times, Sydney Morning Herald et al. tended to see the problem as the consequence of overreach by a “rising China.” That’s a nice change from the tendency in past years to assert that all the South China Sea claimants are equally culpable or, worse, that China’s claim of ‘indisputable sovereignty’ is based on actual facts.

Editorial opinion still counts for something in democracies. If it has indeed tipped decisively against Beijing, some of the credit must go to Bill Hayton, whose “South China Sea: the Struggle for Power in Asia” and other writings have demolished Chinese claims to have governed the Paracels and Spratlys since time immemorial.

Historical argument, as interesting as it may be to the wonkocracy and as convenient as it may be to folks who want to duck a confrontation, is actually irrelevant to the adjudication of claims to control a 3.5 million sq. km. expanse of ocean. The Law of the Sea Convention, to which China and most other nations have adhered and which the US Senate has not so far ratified for reasons obscurely rooted in domestic politics, but which Washington observes anyway, supplies the only usable template for resolution of overlapping claims.

A diplomatic path to the unwinding of the escalating confrontation can begin whenever China reveals what it thinks is really its own. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has pressed Beijing for several years to “clarify its claims.” That means that the Chinese should explain the “nine-dash line” featured on all recent maps published by China. Is Beijing claiming that it owns all the rocks, reefs and other features encompassed by those dashes, or maybe just some of them? Further, what expanse of water does China claim around whatever features it claims, if not all the water inside the nine dash line?

Patriotic Passions

Once well launched, diplomatic haggling could not only keep experts constructively at work for years, but also provide a rationale for military detente. Getting multilateral talks launched is the hard part, in particular because the average Chinese patriot is heavily invested in the idea that China has always owned the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos. 

“Our South Sea” has become a rallying cry for patriots steeped in dreams of revenge for the “century of humiliation” imposed on China by foreigners. No matter that it’s not China’s South Sea but rather a commons over which no nation exercised much sovereignty until the 19th century — and that then it was Vietnamese seafarers, not Chinese, who planted imperial monuments on a score of islets.

Chinese patriots know that in the old days lots of foreign courts sent tribute to the Son of Heaven, among them the rulers of the various Vietnamese and Filipino statelets. That settles the matter for the man in the street, unless Beijing explains to them why in the 21st Century all nations are better off sorting out relations according to commonly agreed rules.

Good sense may be a stretch for a Chinese regime that has buttressed its claim to rule by asserting hegemony over the waters from Hong Kong south to Singapore. Since 2009, also, Beijing has had extraordinarily successful at-bats. It has emptied the Paracels of Vietnamese fishermen and set up its south sea capital there. It has driven Filipino fishermen from the Scarborough Shoals; it has harassed Vietnam’s offshore oil industry; and now is hell-bent on pumping sand onto reefs to create artificial islands pregnant with strategic potential.

Dismounting the Tiger?

There is a rhythm that’s become familiar. Every summer China does something outrageous, gauges international reaction, and then backs off a bit. On top of its deployment of a deep-sea oil rig into waters Vietnam claims as its exclusive economic zone last year, this year’s island-building campaign has proven to be too much even for old China hands to swallow. It is hardly surprising that the US and Japan, India and Australia are increasingly singing from the same songbook, that the Philippines has welcomed US warships back to Subic Bay, and that the US and Vietnam are moving steadily toward close alignment based on complementary strategic interests.

Beijing, it’s said according to a Brookings Institution research paper, “is convinced that the flare-up of disputes in . . . the South China Sea reflects an underlying US strategy to encourage others, especially Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, to push the envelope in hope the Chinese responses will lead those countries — and ASEAN — to become more united and dependent on the United States.”

If so, Beijing’s got it wrong. There’s no unseen American hand at work here. It is precisely China’s relentless pursuit of hegemony that has driven other countries together. It is precisely China that can ease the tension by stating reasonable aims. Until it does so, others must prudently assume the worst.

Just a few years ago, some Western analysts insisted that the Chinese central government had been manoeuvred into an assertive south sea posture by freelancers at lower levels, an unholy coalition of fishermen, oil companies, naval enthusiasts and south China provincial authorities. No one believes that anymore. There’s plentiful evidence that China’s south sea moves are vetted at the very top by a small group chaired by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping himself. At least partly for reasons of domestic political expediency, they have allowed the South China Sea confrontation to define rising China’s posture and ambition. Now, there’s reason to ask if, having ridden the tiger, Xi and his colleagues can figure out how to get off it without huge loss of face.

They should want to get off now. Core Chinese interests are endangered by overreach in the Spratlys. Ash Carter offered an alternative at the Shangri-La meeting: reasonable, respectful sharing of opportunity for Asia-Pacific nations to “rise, prosper and win.” On this, the US is in earnest. Albeit with diminished confidence, Washington still yearns for effective US-Chinese partnership in the management of regional and global problems as varied as terrorism, climate change, human trafficking, nuclear non-proliferation and high seas piracy.

Just before the Shangri-La meeting, Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, floated a proposal. Taiwan is a player. It has controlled Itu Aba, the largest of the Spratlys, since 1956. “While sovereignty cannot be divided, resources can be shared,” Ma said, illustrating his point by referring to an arrangement that has enabled Taiwanese and Japanese to fish without friction in the territorial sea generated by the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands. At this tense juncture, Ma’s proposal merits more consideration than it is likely to get.

David Brown is a former US diplomat with wide experience in Southeast Asia. He can be reached at nworbd@gmail.com