South China Sea: options and risks
22 Jul 2015|

USS Fitzgerald transits the South China SeaThe venerable Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC is hosting its fifth annual conference on the South China Sea on Wednesday, Australian time. It’s my privilege to be speaking at the conference on the theme of the international community and the strategic balances in the South China Sea.

I propose a number of steps which the US and like-minded countries might act upon to develop a more effective shared strategy towards the South China Sea. Five immediate actions stand out as offering a more promising way forward.

First, the US should seek to extract value from President Xi Jinping’s proposed visit to the United States in September 2015. As with past presidential visits, the Chinese will put an exceptionally high priority in delivering a trouble-free and successful visit which will no doubt aim to strengthen domestic perceptions of the exceptional nature of US–China relations. Washington should make it clear to Beijing that the success of this visit will require a substantive discussion on stability in the South China Sea and a willingness to agree that the interests of regional powers must be accommodated.

There’s no prospect that China will concede ground on their sovereignty claim to around 80% of the region, but there may be a possibility that China would agree to a complete halt on land reclamation and of ‘militarising’ current sites if other countries in the region do the same. Going into the Xi visit, the US should start negotiations from the position that no unilateral concessions should be made in an effort to modify Chinese behaviour.

Second, the US should open avenues for dialogue with Asia–Pacific countries and other parties with interests in the South China Sea. This should especially include countries with substantial trading interests with China, like the Europeans and oil-producing Middle East countries, whose economic life-line depends on unfettered access to the South China Sea. A Washington ‘Summit of the friends of the South China Sea’ would help to strengthen the consistency of government-to-government dialogue on the issue just as the Shangri-La Dialogue has done in Singapore. China would, of course, be a welcome participant but the effect of this will be to demonstrate that more pluralist countries are better able to negotiate and share interests.

Third, a key point of discussion in Washington and with like-minded countries should be to anticipate responses that might be necessary to handle a Chinese announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) across the South China Sea. The need is to learn from what was a poorly coordinated and unsustained reaction to the East China Sea ADIZ announcement in November 2013. There are signs that Beijing will hold back from an announcement of a new ADIZ before President Xi’s September visit, but after that time and as the US begins to focus on its presidential election campaign, it’s possible that China might seek to take this next step aimed at consolidating its control of movement through the region. Care must be taken to ensure that initial responses aren’t allowed to fade, giving way to a form of de-facto acceptance that China exercises a form of sovereign control over the region. It may be worth exploring the idea of declaring an international ADIZ, where ship and aircraft movements are pooled in a shared and openly available platform for situational awareness.

Fourth, Washington and regional countries should take time to re-think the current language which is often deployed to respond to Chinese behaviour. For example, calls for greater Chinese transparency in defence planning continue to be made, long after the strategic purpose of gaining tight control in the South China Sea is readily apparent. China has long since learned to use the artifice of policy statements as a way to describe its actions. The idea of transparency has lost practical utility as a way of trying to force a more realistic discussion with China on its intensions.

Finally, some degree of international coordination should take place to sustain a pattern of military overflights and ship passage into disputed areas in the South China Sea. One P-8 flight, no matter how welcome, doesn’t serve to ‘prove’ sustained international interest in the region. In fact the opposite is true: if there are no follow-up flights from countries that claim strategic interests in the region, this only serves to show the relative absence of deep engagement in the security of the South China Sea. It follows that Australia, Singapore, EU countries, Japan and others with a strategic interest in free access to the South China Sea need to exercise that interest in the form of actual overflights and ship transits on the principle of ‘use it or lose it.’ What may be difficult to do today will only become harder in the future if a pattern of de-facto Chinese control is established over the region.