23 October 2016
Sun Jiangguo (left) chats with Ashton Carter (right) at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore during the weekend. Photo: AFP
Sun Jiangguo (left) chats with Ashton Carter (right) at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore during the weekend. Photo: AFP

How will Sino-US tensions over South China Sea unfold?

Over the last two weeks, China and the United States moved dangerously close to the brink of war for the first time in almost two decades, but at the annual security forum in Singapore, the two sides adopted a less hawkish, while still firm, stance on disputes in the South China Sea.

Last week, after the US demanded that China halt its land reclamation and construction work in disputed waters permanently, the Global Times, a Chinese state-owned newspaper,warned that “war is inevitable” unless the US stops making such demands.

At the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter repeated the demand for “an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation” but made it clear that it applied not only to China but to “all claimants”, which Beijing appreciated.

“The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as US forces do all over the world,” Carter said.

In words that were evidently directed at China, he said: “Turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.”

Admiral Sun Jiangguo, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army and the head of the Chinese delegation, countered Carter’s remarks by asserting that China’s construction work in the Spratly Islands is “justified, legitimate and reasonable”.

However, the admiral avoided being confrontational in his address and asserted that “China has exercised enormous restraint” and that the South China Sea has remained, “on the whole, peaceful and stable”.

The two countries appear to be at a standoff, with China insisting it will continue its construction work on its artificial islands.

The US, it appears, doesn’t really have a strategy for dealing with China, merely hoping that it will stop doing what it is doing.

To be fair, Carter also called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China to conclude a code of conduct on the South China Sea this year and for territorial claimants, which include Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, “to pursue international legal arbitration and other peaceful means to resolve these disputes”.

However, although China and ASEAN agreed in 2002 to negotiate such an agreement, Beijing appears to be reluctant to sign such an accord, which presumably will mean that it will have to stop its current activities, including militarization of its artificial islands.

China has also ruled out international legal arbitration, a route being pursued by the Philippines.

So, unless China fundamentally changes its policy, there seems little that the US can do, either unilaterally or jointly with its allies and partners in the region.

The hope seems to be that if enough pressure is brought to bear on China, it will change its stance, but that possibility appears remote.

Meanwhile, the mood in Washington is turning decidedly against China.

Randy Forbes, a Republican member of Congress who often speaks on national security issues, has urged the US to “develop and articulate a coherent response, backed up by military power”, to counter China’s “increasingly assertive actions in the South China Sea”.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in an opening address at the security forum, underlined the dilemma facing the US.

While he said the American presence “is welcomed by the many regional countries which have benefited from it, including Singapore”, he also made it clear that “no country wants to choose sides between the US and China”, now that China is the world’s second-largest economy.

So, whatever the US decides to do, it will have to do largely on its own, possibly with the tacit support of some Southeast Asian countries.

The last time China and the US were on the precipice of war was in 1995-1996, when Beijing held military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and Washington sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the vicinity.

In the aftermath, both decided on the need to improve relations, resulting in an exchange of state visits in 1997 and 1998.

Hopefully, this time, too, tensions will subside and the two countries will decide to calm the waters.

The difference is that this year, with the US presidential campaign season looming, there will be increased calls in America for the flexing of military muscles and little patience with diplomacy.

But this will allow China an opportunity to exercise diplomacy.

It can demonstrate, in Sun’s words, that “China strives to play a constructive role” by moving swiftly to conclude a code of conduct with ASEAN, something that western nations and Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore and Malaysia also called for at the Shangri-la Dialogue.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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