What will it take to stop cycle of escalation in the South China Sea?

Amid mounting regional concerns about Beijing’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea, President Xi Jinping stood with President Barack Obama last September in the White House Rose Garden and vowed that China would not militarize its newly constructed outposts in the Spratly Islands. But Xi was careful not to include Beijing’s Paracel Islands, in the north of the South China Sea.

China has now reportedly placed surface-to-air missiles on one of its Paracel outposts. While this act does not strictly contradict Xi’s commitment, it clearly violates its spirit.

Such actions are a big reason why the Asia-Pacific region is increasingly focused on the South China Sea. It was perhaps not coincidental that news of the missiles’ movement broke just as Obama finished hosting an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in California, where the South China Sea had topped the agenda.

The revelation raises the stakes as tensions continue to rise across Southeast Asia and other countries move to defend their claims. This could be a harbinger of things to come in one of the world’s most important waterways, through which passes roughly $5.3 trillion of global trade annually, including $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade.

A Chinese Coast Guard ship (top) near a Vietnam Marine Guard ship in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) off Vietnam, May 14, 2014. REUTERS/Nguyen Minh
A Chinese Coast Guard ship (top) near a Vietnam Marine Guard ship in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) off Vietnam, May 14, 2014. REUTERS/Nguyen Minh

First, stationing missiles is a significant symbolic step for China as it seeks to assert its authority over claims in the South China Sea. In recent years, Beijing has taken many actions to advance this agenda, including announcing restrictive fishing regulations and forcibly evicting the Philippines from Scarborough Shoal.

In 2013, for example, China initiated a massive land-reclamation project that would have made the builders of the Pyramids jealous. Beijing created roughly 2,900 acres of new land in the South China Sea in less than two years. With its current actions, China is signaling its intentions to bolster its outposts with military facilities and equipment that could vastly expand the scale and scope of Beijing’s reach across the South China Sea.

Second, China’s reputed actions are only the latest of its incremental steps to assert authority over regional claims without provoking a strong response. It follows the same pattern: China reportedly stationed missiles not on its newly created islands in the Spraltys, which have provoked anxiety throughout the region, but rather one not specifically covered by Xi’s non-militarization commitment.

This has been China’s strategy: walk right up to the line, step over it a little and see how everyone responds. Provoke, but not too much. Countries are rightly complaining that this move is provocative, but their responses so far indicate that it is not provocative enough to cause a strong rebuke. And China is portraying it as merely defensive, a supposedly justifiable step in line with China’s recent commitments.

It’s not this step alone that Washington should be concerned about.  It’s the accumulation of all Beijing’s steps across the South China Sea, and those yet to come.

Third, the countries of the region may now feel the need to respond. Nearly every neighboring country has expressed concerns over Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea. Those with claims in the South China Sea – including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan — have shown that they will respond to defend them.

Taiwan’s president, for example, recently made a high-profile visit to its only South China Sea outpost to remind everyone of Taiwan’s claims. The Philippines has drawn closer to the United States, including through the recent Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Vietnam has  sent ships to contest Beijing’s placement of an oil rig in disputed waters near its coast. There may now be renewed pressure in these countries to demonstrate that they can defend their outposts.

To respond to the new missiles in the Paracels, there will likely be a flurry of high-level calls and meetings among Beijing and Washington, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and U.S. allies in the region, including Japan, South Korea and Australia, to show China that its recent actions concern its neighbors. Secretary of State John Kerry took a key first step Tuesday, when he discussed the South China Sea problems during a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Washington.

Beijing’s move in the Paracels is only one of many worrying developments in the South China Sea, but one that reveals the urgency of the continuing diplomatic effort to address the rising tensions. Though a resolution to the South China Sea disputes will likely take a long time, one goal of diplomatic talks in the coming weeks and months should be to jump-start a regional conversation about what it means to “militarize” outposts in the South China Sea. The region’s claimant countries need to agree on this — outlining what countries can and cannot do — before they take more actions to defend their claims.

More important, the United States has a central role to play in lowering regional tensions. Beijing and Washington need to get on the same page about what militarization means. During the news conference after their meeting, Kerry and Wang’s comments on militarization made clear that the two countries are talking past each other. Washington is talking about China building up its outposts, while China is talking about the presence of the U.S. military in the South China Sea. A serious bilateral process is necessary on top of the multilateral talks.

If not, we’re likely to see a tit-for-tat cycle that could escalate serious tensions in the South China Sea.

Michael H. Fuchs served as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He is now is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.

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