News analysis

No smooth sailing for Obama and Xi on disputed waters issue

BEIJING • When dozens of world leaders gather for a summit meeting in Washington today, President Barack Obama will meet privately with only one of them - President Xi Jinping of China.

The one-on-one session signals the importance of the relationship, as a rising China seems determined to be the dominant player in Asia, and the United States vows to retain its power in the Pacific.

But relations between the two countries are at their lowest point in 15 years. China's military expansion in the South China Sea may be the most prominent point of friction, but it does not help that China is distracted by a slowing economy and that trade with China has become a cudgel in the US presidential campaign.

Expectations that anything of substance will be accomplished in the 90-minute meeting between the two presidents are minimal. So it may be surprising that some analysts in China and in the US say it would be relatively easy for the two leaders to ease tensions.

Mr Xi could pledge not to go any further in militarising disputed islands, said professor of international relations Shi Yinhong of Renmin University in Beijing. In return, he said, the Americans could agree to stop sending warships and aircraft on "freedom of navigation" patrols into territory claimed by China. The US Navy has conducted two such patrols in the past several months, and there is a push in Congress for more.

Under Mr Xi, China has built artificial islands in disputed parts of the Spratly archipelago, equipping them with runways and ports capable of projecting substantial military power... Those projects strengthen China's hand in the strategic waterway, analysts said, in ways that it has never done before.

US analyst Douglas H. Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said a show of restraint by both sides would be helpful. "Offers of reassurance that restraint on new actions by China will lead to restraint on new significant or permanent military deployments by the US" would be a start, he said. Beijing, for example, could agree not to use landfill to build up the Scarborough Shoal, part of the contested Spratly Islands, over which the Philippines lost control to China.

In China, even though Mr Xi has orchestrated the South China Sea gambit, some foreign policy experts disagree with his stance.

Those who are unhappy with his actions argue that the expansion alienates China's Asian neighbours, pushing them closer to the US - the opposite of what Mr Xi is trying to achieve through trade and diplomacy. Some Chinese scholars privately assert that in a gesture towards recognising the authority of international maritime law, China could more closely set out its claim to the region by defining the so-called nine-dash line.

The nine-dash line is a U-shape line that China has drawn on maps since the late 1940s to mark its claims over most of the South China Sea. The line overlaps territory claimed by countries including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. But China has never given the precise coordinates of the line, and the ambiguity gives Beijing room to manoeuvre.

Such a move would probably appeal to the US, said Mr Paal. Doing so, and acknowledging the primacy of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, would effectively limit China's claims of sovereignty to waters within 12 nautical miles from any land within the lines, freeing up the sea within, US and Chinese experts said.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry quietly proposed doing just that in 2011, a year before Mr Xi came to power, and then dropped the idea, said Mr Paal, who was the director of the American Institute in Taiwan in the George W. Bush administration.

It is unlikely to happen now.

According to Prof Shi, "the South China Sea is strategic hardball, and it goes to key national interests".

Last week, at a briefing on Mr Xi's trip, Vice-Foreign Minister Li Baodong made no attempt to sugarcoat the issue. When it comes to the South China Sea, he said sternly, China "has its own point of view and position".

Under Mr Xi, China has built artificial islands in disputed parts of the Spratly archipelago, equipping them with runways and ports capable of projecting substantial military power. On the Paracel Islands, which China has controlled since the early 1970s after pushing out Vietnam, the Chinese military has installed surface-to-air missile batteries and powerful radar facilities. Those projects strengthen China's hand in the strategic waterway, analysts said, in ways that it has never done before.

Mr Xi wants "to force Asian maritime neighbours and the United States to accept the new status quo", Prof Shi said.

Chinese schoolchildren are taught that much of the South China Sea has belonged to China since ancient times, making any move seen as reducing Beijing's claim seem a capitulation, scholars say.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2016, with the headline 'No smooth sailing for Obama and Xi on disputed waters issue News analysis'. Print Edition | Subscribe