US Failure in the South China Sea

Author: Ava White, Johns Hopkins

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On Monday, October 13, 2014, China National Offshore Oil Corp, China’s state oil corporation, struck its first oil in the Enping 24-2 field. Located about 120 miles south of Hong Kong, the offshore field is expected to reach a peak production of 40,000 barrels per day in 2017. While this development is hardly revolutionary on its own, it is, in fact, the next step in China’s steady march in its quest towards domination over and hegemonic control of the South China Sea.

Asia is undoubtedly a region of critical importance for the United States. In terms of population, economic growth and potential, as well as resources, the sheer numbers are indisputable. Southeast Asia alone boasts a population of some 600 million, and has an unbelievable and as-yet untapped potential for economic growth. The region boasts an annual growth rate of over 5%, and that number – fueled by strong domestic demand and a wealth of natural resources – is expected to rise rapidly in the near future. Including the South China Sea, the region is expected to contain billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Furthermore, growing Chinese strength anywhere is a threat to US interests, simply because the Chinese continually challenge US global hegemony. Around the world, from Africa to the Middle East, China regularly opposes US interventions and other actions; in terms of economic might and political clout, China is rapidly approaching superpower status.

The conflict over the South China Sea’s resources and oil is far from theoretical. Forget the Nine-Dash Line that demarcates China’s territorial claims —Chinese naval vessels now regularly engage in limited conflict with Vietnamese vessels, with both sides repeatedly ramming and capsizing each other’s ships. The pattern that seems to be emerging is one of startlingly bold expansionism: First, China establishes oil rigs and defends them with naval and coast guard vessels, then Vietnam sends naval vessels to ram Chinese ships and platforms and to deploy “obstacles” (like fishing nets) to hinder Chinese operations. The dispute runs both ways and is fueled by rhetoric and propaganda – Vietnamese state TV has aired videos of Chinese ships allegedly colliding with Vietnamese ships, and sentiments within Vietnam are running so high that anti-Chinese rioters killed four people in June.

With tensions this elevated in a region that is economically vital due to both its proximity to essential international shipping routes as well as its oil, what has the United States done? The Obama Administration is known for touting its “rebalance to Asia” strategy as a guiding principle of a new American foreign policy. It is seeking to complete negotiations for a free trade zone (known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership) around the Pacific Rim. As further evidence of its supposed increased focus on Asia, the US and the Philippines signed an agreement in April to return rotating contingents of American troops to Filipino bases – thus reviving a military relationship that had ended in 1991. Additionally, negotiations were finalized in August for a similar plan involving rotating American troops based in Australia’s Northern Territories. But has President Obama truly pursued an active policy in the Asia-Pacific region?

In keeping with his preference for multilateral actions over unilateral ones, Obama has addressed the South China Sea issue both through ASEAN (by pushing for the organization to create a maritime Code of Conduct for the area) and through another ally – India. Two weeks ago, Obama issued a joint statement with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that expressed concern over mounting tensions and the use of violence in the region. Essentially, the US sent Chinese President Xi Jinping a gently-worded statement without outwardly assigning any blame to China for its aggressive expansionism. China responded as expected to such a weak appeal for peace: “Our position is that the dispute in the South China Sea should be resolved by the countries directly concerned through negotiation and consultation, and any third party should not be involved in the dispute,” said Hong Lei, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson. In other words, China said, “The Sea is part of our sphere of influence and we’ll do as we please.”

The simple fact is that the Chinese have strong economic and political motivations to continue establishing and expanding their control over the South China Sea. They are unlikely to back down in the face of a weak appeal for peace, and they will continue to threaten Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries who have territorial claims in the region. Besides containing growing Chinese power, the US absolutely has a stake in preventing a serious conflict involving these Southeast Asian countries – many of whom are our close allies, as expressed by Obama’s former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon at an event last week at Johns Hopkins University – and in protecting the area’s resources and shipping lanes. At the same event, Donilon said that the US must take a leading role in ensuring that all parties involved avoid a “miscalculation which could spiral into a bigger set of problems.” Yet despite all the talk of an Asia-focused administration, Obama has done staggeringly little to respond to an increasingly precarious situation.

Of course, one must keep in mind the fact that foreign policy does not exist in a vacuum. The US, as other countries do, should act to protect its interests around the world, and while ideally Obama might wish to focus on Asia, events elsewhere may be forcing him to sideline his goals. Notably, Obama has been tied up with the recent events in Ukraine, the Ebola crisis, and of course the ever-evolving Middle Eastern engagements and threats. Health crises and extremism pose direct threats to the US, and therefore these problems attract immediate attention. However, the evolving situation in the South China Sea is a threat for all of the reasons previously mentioned – if seemingly an indirect one. Asia’s sheer population and economic potential will make the region indisputably essential to the US in the future, and Obama would be wise to avoid ignoring developments in the region in favor of another Middle East crisis.

In November, Obama is due to travel to China, Burma, and Australia for several meetings and summits on economic growth and cooperation. As tensions continue to escalate over the South China Sea, he would be seriously remiss to pass up the opportunity to have the US a more assertive role in resolving the dispute. He needs to put more pressure on China to curtail its aggressive actions, and he needs to do it soon.

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