Post #41 – The US-China Tangle Over the South China Sea

The best way to describe the latest round of U.S.-China dispute over the South China Sea (SCS) is “déjà vu all over again.”  (See post #23 for background.)  The setting this time was the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Burma (Myanmar), attended by foreign ministers from the ten ASEAN countries plus representatives from seventeen other countries affiliated in various ways with the forum.  The ARF’s purpose is to discuss security and political issues of concern to the region, and on this occasion the topics included North Korea’s nuclear weapons and host Burma’s human-rights situation as well as the SCS.

For the US, the SCS issue keeps rising on its Asia agenda.  It’s no longer a matter of offering to serve as a broker, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did. At the August 9 meeting, Secretary of State John Kerry said: “The United States and ASEAN have a common responsibility to ensure the maritime security of critical sea, land and ports. We need to work together to manage tensions in the South China Sea and to manage them peacefully, and also to manage them on the basis of international law.” He called for a freeze on “provocative acts” in the disputed area, echoing a Filipino idea.  But ASEAN’s secretary-general refused to pick up on Kerry’s idea, saying: “”It is up to ASEAN to encourage China to achieve a serious and effective implementation of this commitment, rather than ASEAN asking whether it should support or not support the [U.S.] proposal.”[1]

The Chinese position at the ARF meeting was that China was the party practicing restraint, and that “provocations” by other countries would require that China make a “clear and firm reaction.” Rejecting the freeze idea, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “any proposal to come up with an alternative [to a code of conduct] would only disrupt discussion” of a code.[2]  China’s Wang Yi added: “Someone has been exaggerating or even playing up the so-called tension in the South China Sea,” Wang told reporters. “We do not agree with such a practice, and we call for vigilance in the motives behind them.”

Wang insisted that the SCS situation was “stable on the whole” and implied that Kerry was wrong to think otherwise.[3]  China and ASEAN don’t need any help resolving the dispute, Wang said at the close of the meeting.  Does the United States “want to confuse the region?” he asked. “Countries out of the region can reasonably voice their concern, but we disagree with them for coming to the region finger-pointing.”[4]  So much for Kerry’s notion of “working together to manage tensions.”

These quite diverse positions were prefigured by US-China exchanges on SCS earlier this year.  In February, for instance, on the eve of a trip to East Asia, Kerry lent support to the Philippines position and called for resolving the territorial issue through negotiations in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and international law.  (The US, it should be noted, has not ratified UNCLOS, though it has recognized the convention as customary international law. China ratified UNCLOS in 1996, but in 2006 declared that it had sovereignty over the disputed islands in the East and South China Seas.[5])  The Chinese side said then that its position was in accord with international law and that the SCS dispute is best dealt with “by the countries directly concerned”—meaning bilaterally.[6]  Then in July, Kerry met with senior PRC officials in Beijing as part of the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an event that Xi Jinping opened by saying that “cooperation between China and the United States will benefit the world.”  However, the spirit of cooperation was not much in evidence, as Kerry criticized China’s record on human rights and others in the US delegation pressed China on climate change.  Kerry urged that China sign a legally binding code of conduct.  A unilateral attempt to change the status quo, he said, would be “unacceptable” to the US.[7]

In the background to this dispute are immediate and long-range differences.  China has been actively asserting that the SCS islands are one of its “core interests” for some time.  Its moves into the Scarborough Shoal area claimed by the Philippines in 2012, and its deployment of a deep-sea oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam this year—though the rig was withdrawn within two months, in mid-July—are among the Chinese actions that have led to sharp exchanges between Beijing and these neighbors.  China’s unwillingness to accept international adjudication of the dispute, and its presumption of sovereignty over the islands and much of the surrounding area, have raised suspicions of its intentions around Asia. Yet the major feature of China’s Southeast Asia policy is economic. The SCS contains well-established oil and gas deposits that all the claimants covet.  China-ASEAN trade is approaching $500 billion annually, and Chinese aid projects have been highly visible—a high-speed rail line in Thailand and a second gas pipeline in Burma, for instance.[8]

Meantime, the US has been stepping up its own presence in the region, particularly in the Philippines.  Manila has agreed to expand the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement to allow more regular US naval and air access to Philippines bases such as Subic Bay.  US support of Japan in the Diaoyudao-Senkakus dispute with China is also relevant.  Washington has long wanted greater Japanese burden sharing on security matters, and now, to Beijing’s dismay, it has that possibility: Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s push for constitutional revision that would enable Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to participate in collective defense activities with the United States.

The long-term strategic context of these moves is the contrasting approaches of the US and China to regional security.  The US plan since 2009 to “rebalance” its forces in Asia, underscored by President Obama’s trip to four countries in the region in April,[9] is clearly designed to reassure both traditional allies and other friendly governments (including Malaysia) that the US remains committed to defense of its Asia interests, presumably against China.  Meanwhile, Xi Jinping, while promoting the theme of a “new type of great-power relationship” with the US, talks of an all-Asia security arrangement that would not include the US.[10] At the Beijing meeting in July, Kerry, with Xi at his side, sought to reassure the Chinese that US policy was not to “push back against or be in conflict with China.” Trouble is, the Chinese do not seem reassured, instead seeing the renewed US attention to Asia as (depending on the Chinese official or security analyst) either a return to the Cold War or a challenge to China’s sovereign rights.  On the US side, the worry seems to be that China’s initiatives in the SCS and with the ASEAN countries add up to an effort gradually to erode the US alliance system.  Some experts think China’s goal is eventually to push the US out of East Asia altogether.

Secretary Kerry, in a speech in Hawaii following the ARF meetings, said that the US wants a “rules-based regional order” in Asia.[11]  Freezing activity in the SCS is seen as being preliminary to creating a binding code of conduct.  The nearest thing to a code, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS (DOC), signed by ASEAN and China at Phnom Penh in November 2002, is (like most such documents) vague on the details.[12]  The DOC commits the parties to resolving disputes by peaceful means, without using threats or force and in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS.  Article 5 of the Declaration then states:


The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner. Pending the peaceful settlement of territorial and jurisdictional disputes, the Parties concerned undertake to intensify efforts to seek ways, in the spirit of cooperation and understanding, to build trust and confidence . . .


The document goes on to indicate various trust-building steps, including exchanges of views between defense officials, prior notification of military movements, and cooperative projects such as search-and-rescue and protection of marine life.

The DOC comes up short on which actions demonstrate self-restraint and which are unreasonable escalations.  How violations of good behavior would be treated also remains to be determined.  There is no assurance that a code of conduct would fill these gaps though, as Mark Valencia has shown, one can be drawn up that would be comprehensive in covering each of the party’s particular concerns.[13]  Everyone agrees, as the final statement of the ARF’s foreign ministers said, that the SCS is a matter of “serious concern” and that all parties need to exercise “restraint.”  Most everyone could probably agree—since such agreement has precedent in the China-Japan island dispute—that a formula to share undersea resources is desirable.  Moreover, during the ARF meetings, China-Japan and Japan-South Korea get-togethers took place on the sidelines, a positive omen in light of the absence of recent summit diplomacy in those relationships.  Still, it would be hard to describe the ARF meeting as a diplomatic success, since all the participants—and not just the Americans and Chinese—clung to previous positions and a code of conduct remains a distant objective.

While that is the case, the SCS dispute holds the possibility of suddenly spiraling out of control.  As events of the last year indicate—not only the Chinese oil rig incident but also landings of personnel on particular islands, contracts with international oil companies, detention of fishermen, deployments of ships, interference with other parties’ vessels, and anti-Chinese riots—none of the stakeholders has a monopoly on good behavior.  And while Washington talks about legalities, China has legitimate concerns about US military snooping in Chinese coastal waters.

The SCS dispute thus continues to overshadow prospects for a fully cooperative US-China relationship. The fact that other issues are also in play to mar the relationship—human rights, cyberhacking, and climate change, just to mention three—only magnifies Beijing-Washington differences on the SCS.  None of these issues needs be a deal breaker that would put US-China relations into a Cold War-style deep freeze.  Kerry’s Hawaii speech in fact was quite optimistic about the overall state of relations, pointing to China’s cooperation on North Korea, South Sudan, and the Iran nuclear talks, and reaffirming that all the US wants in the SCS dispute is nonuse of force and “a mutual embrace of the rules, the norms, and institutions that have served both of our nations and the region so well.”  But Kerry knows very well that China and the US do not agree on many rules, norms, and institutions, partly because of their very different histories and power positions in the world, and partly because of contending nationalisms and levels of interest in Asia.  Handling the dicey SCS issue will require considerable deftness, above all respect for different world views, at a time when both the Obama and Xi administrations have their hands full with domestic problems and other foreign-policy concerns.



[3] Matthew Lee, “Kerry Seeks to Calm South China Sea Tensions,”–politics.html.





[8] Patrick M. Cronin and Cecilia Zhou, “US and China’s Dueling Visions of ASEAN,” The Diplomat,

[9] See my “Obama in Asia, with China in Mind,”

[10] Xi presented this idea at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia in May 2014.  He suggested that the CICA become “a security dialogue and cooperation platform that covers the whole of Asia.”  See my “Xi Jinping Visits Seoul: The Bigger Picture,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, vol. 12, Issue 30, No. 2 (July 28, 2014), at

[11] John Kerry, “U.S. Vision for Asia-Pacific Engagement,” August 13, 2014,

[12] Text at

[13] Mark J. Valencia, “The East China Sea Disputes: History, Status, and Ways Forward,” Asian Perspective, vol. 38, No. 2 (2014), pp. 183-218.

Categories: Tags: , , ,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s