Nick Bisley, For The Straits Times

Lower the temperature in South China Sea

US Marines taking part in the annual Philippine-US war games in the South China Sea last month. In China's reclamation works in the Spratly Islands and America's response to them, Asia's two most important players are pushing the regional temperature
US Marines taking part in the annual Philippine-US war games in the South China Sea last month. In China's reclamation works in the Spratly Islands and America's response to them, Asia's two most important players are pushing the regional temperature higher.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

During oral testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 13, United States Assistant Secretary of Defence David Shear mentioned that as part of a set of military measures to respond to China's provocative acts in the South China Sea, United States Air Force B-1 bombers would be deployed to Darwin.

This caught officials on both sides of the Pacific off guard and, quickly, Mr Shear was described as having "misspoken". While B-1s are unlikely to be based in Australia any time soon, the comment - even if "misspoken" - was the latest example of a distinct sharpening of American intent towards the South China Sea disputes.

Senior officials have more forcefully condemned China's actions for some time. US Pacific Fleet Commander Harry Harris publicly criticised China for building a "great wall of sand" in late March.

Mr Shear's comments followed reports last week that Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter has asked the military to look at options to challenge China's claims.

Washington is reportedly considering deploying naval vessels in the contested waters, conducting surveillance over the reclamation works and even holding a freedom of navigation exercise off the disputed features.

Previously, the US took pains to remain aloof from the contest, emphasising it did not support any one claim and instead emphasising that the disputes should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law. In opting to move to a more muscular language, the US is increasing the strategic temperature in the region and contributing to a much riskier regional strategic setting.

The disputes in the South China Sea are complex, involving six parties - China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - each with differing claims. China is thought to have the most expansive of these, although it has not formally enunciated what this entails. The only guideline is a map, lodged with the United Nations in 2009, which has an undefined series of 10 dashes encircling the South China Sea, although most observers believe that the dashes mark China's maritime borders.

Since around 2010 Beijing has increased its activities in the contested territories, including deploying an exploratory oil rig in the waters that most regard as Vietnam's, arresting Indonesians it claimed were fishing illegally in Chinese waters and, most recently, undertaking extensive reclamation activity, and constructing buildings and even a runway on the new land in the Spratly Islands. But China is not the only one pouring concrete. Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines have also been augmenting their claims in the Spratly Islands.

In building structures, occupying reefs and arresting fishermen, the rival claimants are trying to strengthen their claims while also demonstrating their administrative authority.

China is the most active of the claimants and its actions represent what many think is an attempt to make good on its larger ambitions implied in the "dashed line map" by taking a series of small steps, each relatively uncontroversial - what some have described as a "salami slicing" strategy. This has been going on for some years, although the recent reclamation has clearly upped the scale and speed of activity.

Why is the US hardening its stance now? Washington has made Asia its priority, centred on the notion of a "rebalance" of its strategic policy towards the region. The focus on the region has several motivations but ensuring that China's rise does not undermine Washington's dominant position in the region is central among them. The decision to harden US policy and to introduce some coercive diplomacy into America's position on the disputes appears to be driven by a realisation that its current approach is not constraining China or, indeed, others in the region. And it reflects larger doubts about the underlying international arrangements in Asia.

But it is not at all clear that the move towards a more militarily focused approach is going to work, particularly given its risks. Although it is designed to pressurise China, the US policy ramps up pressure across the region, not least on Washington.

What happens if China ignores the US and continues to build? Given the failure to enforce supposed red lines in Syria, the US will find itself in a difficult corner. Equally, US partners in the region which do not have a direct stake in the conflict, like Australia or Japan, will find themselves in the kind of invidious position they have sought to avoid: having to choose between Washington and Beijing.

In China's reclamation works and America's response to them, Asia's two most important players are pushing the regional temperature higher.

Rather than ratcheting up pressure, Washington and Beijing need to begin a much more complex conversation to demilitarise the dispute and dial down tensions. Stop pouring concrete and don't deploy the US Navy.

More importantly, a bigger discussion needs to begin about managing disputes and establishing new ways to create a stable regional order. For Washington, this means realising that the region cannot remain forever like it is 1998, while for China this means accepting that its behaviour is destabilising and that its assertive and at times bullying behaviour is both dangerous and unbecoming.

Unless we can establish a peaceful means to carve out a new regional settlement that reconciles the changing power balance with underlying principles of sovereignty and stability, the complex disputes of the South China Sea and elsewhere will become contests of power, will and honour.

And we know how those end.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is Executive Director, La Trobe Asia, and Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University, Melbourne.