There has been plenty of media commentary and analysis suggesting that US-China relations might be reaching a crunch point regarding the issue of sovereignty over islands and reefs in the South China Sea that Beijing claims and has occupied. Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei also have claim territories in the region.
The US comes into the picture as some of the regional claimants, like the Philippines, are long-time US allies and others, like Vietnam, are new friends. However, the US maintains that it has no position on the question of sovereignty, but would simply like China to resolve the territorial disputes peacefully through dialogue with its neighbors.
However, there is a bigger issue involved.
China’s virtually blanket claims and its assertion through building military facilities on naturally occurring and artifical islands is set to turn almost all of the South China Sea into its exclusive territory — thus impeding freedom of navigation through the important waterways.
It is this right to freedom of navigation that the US has challenged by sending a naval ship within 12 nautical miles (22.2km) of at least one of the land formations China claims in the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島).
In addition, the US said it plans to continue to sail, fly and operate through the international waters. China has reacted furiously to this threat to its “sovereignty and security interests.”
A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement said that it had “monitored, followed and warned” the US warship during its journey and it would “take all necessary measures” to safeguard its sovereignty against any “premeditated provocation.”
A US statement said that their mission to cruise through the international waters “was completed without incident.”
According to media reports, “more than half the world’s merchant tonnage plies back and forth through this navigable chokehold between the Western Pacific and Indian oceans.”
With China claiming ownership of the territories, and intent on prevailing in the disputes via political or military means, there is fuel enough for a conflagration — as the US seems equally determined to challenge the 12-nautical mile limit China has imposed around the Spratly Islands.
During a panel discussion on Australia’s relations with China on a highly rated Australian TV talk show, a Chinese panelist was asked about what Beijing’s reaction would be if the US were to persist in its forays in the South China Sea. He had no answer, but he reiterated China’s claim to sovereignty over the disputed islands and the waters surrounding them.
However, an answer of sorts can be seen in a 2011 editorial in China’s Global Times, which bluntly warned: “If these countries [opposing China] don’t want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons. We need to be ready for that as it may be the only way for the disputes in the sea to be resolved.”
Even accounting for its rhetorical flourish, it is quite a serious way of stating China’s “core interest” as Beijing has defined it. There is not much scope for compromise as Beijing sees it.
Mercifully, at the moment, the situation remains under control.
It was in 2011 that US President Barack Obama announced in the Australian parliament the US “pivot” toward Asia — a “rebalancing” of US focus following a decade of engagement in the Middle East.
The US would be deploying more of its military assets in Asia and intended to remain a strong Pacific power: The US was not thinking of leaving the Asia-Pacific region for China to establish its primacy.
In this respect, Australia would become an even more important regional ally. As part of this renewed regional focus, the US would rotate and station its forces and other military assets through Australia. The US plans to use base facilities in Australia as part of its revived Asia-Pacific strategy.
In Australia, the view across the political divide, backed by the majority of its public, is in favor of a strong alliance with the US to counter any threat from China. Beijing’s projection of power in the South China Sea is considered a serious threat to regional stability.
It is therefore considered necessary to let China know that there are consequences to its activities. For there is a need to make a stand that might require challenging China’s 12-nautical mile exclusive zone.
This issue featured in recent US-Australia strategic talks in the US.
“We have to stand up for a rules-based international order, which means that the strongest power [in the region] cannot just do whatever it likes,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reportedly said.
Regarding the US naval patrol in the Spratly Islands, Canberra supported the US action.
“It is important to recognize that all states have a right under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, including in the South China Sea. Australia strongly supports these rights,” Australian Minister of Defense Marise Payne said. “Australia is not involved in the current United States activity in the South China Sea.”
Canberra’s dilemma is how to reconcile its primary trade relationship with China and its priority strategic relationship with the US. China is Australia’s top trading partner and the two nations have recently signed a free-trade agreement to further boost their economic relationship. This is sustainable only if Australia does not find itself in the position of having to confront China in the South China Sea as part of its security alliance with the US.
Indeed, Washington might ask Australia at some point to join the US in a joint sail-through China’s 12-nautical mile limit, and having supported the US action in principle and as a security partner, Canberra might not be able to refuse. That could trigger a crisis in China-Australia relations.
Australia is hoping that it will not come to this. Some analysts in Washington and Canberra have been trying to read positive intentions into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) recent comment during a White House press conference that Beijing had no intention of militarizing the Spratly Islands.
On the other hand, he could simply mean that China’s understanding of its new facilities on the islands is that these are civilian outposts.
However, Xi’s comment was picked up as a hopeful sign that China might not, after all, be pushing the confrontation button.
“We do note and we do welcome President Xi’s statement when he was here in the United States, in Washington, that the Chinese government did not intend to militarize the Spratly Islands ... we welcome that statement and we’ll certainly hold China to it,” Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop said.
It can only mean that China and the US — and its ally Australia — want to avoid confrontation.
However, both China and the US are trying to read their own meaning into the developing situation in the South China Sea — which is increasingly tense and has the potential to become ugly.
Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.
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