What the US and China are fighting over in South China Sea

Chinese naval troops on patrol at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands, also known as the Nansha Islands. China has sovereignty claims over the archipelago and controls several islands and reefs there.
Chinese naval troops on patrol at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands, also known as the Nansha Islands. China has sovereignty claims over the archipelago and controls several islands and reefs there.PHOTO: REUTERS

As the leaders of China and the United States meet in Hangzhou ahead of this weekend's Group of 20 summit, many would like to know whether differences over the South China Sea will cloud the bilateral relationship. The question is, what exactly are the two nations competing over in the area? And more importantly, can they find a mutually acceptable way to move forward?

The US claims that its interest in the South China Sea is to ensure freedom of navigation. Indeed, critical shipping lanes run through the area, and keeping them open is important to all countries. China, a major global trading power, attaches no less importance to freedom of navigation than the US, perhaps even more.

Obviously, however, that is not all the US is concerned about. It is worried mainly about preserving freedom of navigation for naval warships and other non-commercial vessels. Here, admittedly, there is a gap between how China and the US each interprets the relevant provisions in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), as well as corresponding customary rules of international law.

In particular, the two sides have significantly differing views on the kind of military activities allowed within another country's 200- nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, or EEZ. China, as a developing country, highly values its national sovereignty and security. It holds that, under Unclos, the principle of freedom of navigation should not be used to undermine the security of coastal countries. On the other hand, the US, as a global maritime power, has traditionally believed that its military is entitled to absolute freedom of navigation in other countries' EEZs - including for oceanographic surveying, surveillance and military exercises.

Now, just as there is no dispute over allowing freedom of navigation for commercial ships in the South China Sea, there is no reason the two sides cannot also wisely manage their differences over the rules for naval vessels.

Chinese naval troops on patrol at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands, also known as the Nansha Islands. China has sovereignty claims over the archipelago and controls several islands and reefs there. PHOTO: REUTERS

What the US really wants, though, goes beyond its expressed concerns. In fact, it views friction with China from a geostrategic perspective, seeing the South China Sea dispute as a test of which power will predominate in the Asia-Pacific. Ever since US leaders started talking about a pivot or rebalance to Asia, they have worked under the assumption that a stronger China will inevitably pursue expansionism - and thus needs to be countered.

Against this background, any move by China naturally looks like an attempt to weaken US strategic primacy in the region. And at the same time, American rhetoric and activities clearly targeted at China are bound to trigger a strong Chinese reaction. Given such a "security dilemma", the risk of escalated China-US confrontation or even conflict is becoming increasingly serious.

The recent arbitration ruling in the case brought by the Philippines against China has aroused strong rhetorical reaction in China, which is not opposed to Unclos or even to arbitration as a means of dispute settlement, but simply to the way this particular tribunal was constituted and chose to rule, which has been perceived as an abuse of power.

Hopefully, given the fierce debate over the tribunal's verdict, people in the region will see the wisdom of dealing with such issues through friendly dialogue rather than confrontational means.

The countries bordering the South China Sea surely appreciate that the tension stands in the way of regional integration and economic cooperation, to no one's benefit. Recently, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appointed former president Fidel Ramos as a special envoy to China for an ice-breaking trip. When I was invited to meet Mr Ramos privately in Hong Kong, I clearly sensed the new Philippine administration's willingness to improve relations with China. China and the Philippines are both Asian countries and I believe that as long as there is good faith, it is not beyond our reach to restore a relationship marked by friendship and cooperation.

Whether the South China Sea remains peaceful is, however, to a large extent dependent on how the US and China choose to interact with each other. Specifically, when China's sovereignty and maritime rights and interests are deemed to conflict with what the US sees as its core national interests, it is vital that the two countries read the situation accurately, be clear about the stakes and find an appropriate angle from which each other's position can be appreciated.

There is room for both China and the US to manage their relations better. The US lacks experience in dealing with powers that are "neither ally nor foe", while China has never interacted with the world's superpower from a position of strength. Both sides are still exploring, and what they say and do will shape each other's opinions and actions. They both need to remain humble, keep learning and avoid simply resorting to old beliefs and behaviour.

The South China Sea is too vast to be controlled by any single country. Any attempt to build an exclusive sphere of influence may lead to possible confrontation and even military conflict. The only way forward is to seek coexistence and an overall harmonisation of power, interests and rules.

China is the biggest coastal state bordering the South China Sea. It has sovereignty claims over the Nansha (or Spratly) archipelago and controls several islands and reefs there. It is only fair that China is also entitled to legitimate maritime rights and interests in the area. The US should respect these and should not hamper efforts by China and neighbouring countries to seek peaceful ways to address their differences.

In the meantime, China and the US must continue to pursue meaningful dialogue, based on a shared commitment to ensure the maintenance of peace, security and unimpeded access to shipping lanes in the South China Sea. The best way to address their differences on maritime rules is by talking to each other, instead of posturing or dangerously testing each other with their military forces.

A persistent concern troubling the US is that China is attempting to replace it as leader of the world order. What the US strives to preserve, however, is a US-led world order, which rests upon American values, its global military alliance structure and the network of international institutions centred on the United Nations.

China is excluded from this order in at least two aspects: First, China is ostracised for having a different political system; second, America's collective defence arrangements do not cover China's security interests. Should China and the US wish to avoid sliding into the so-called Thucydides trap of a head-on clash between a rising power and an established power, they will need to create a new concept of order that is more inclusive and can accommodate the interests and concerns of all countries, providing a common roof for all.

For China, in particular, it is imperative that we make ourselves better understood by the rest of the world. China has grown from a poverty-stricken country into the world's second- biggest economy in a little over 30 years. Its modernisation has been compressed to a degree previously unheard of. However, it is not so easy to compress progress in thinking and discourse. We in China must improve our ideas and ways of thinking faster and form a broader international vision, with more effective modes of expression and behaviour.

In this way, the rest of the world will be able to better appreciate our culture and the reasons why we talk and act the way we do. This will also help them to understand China's foreign-policy goals as we move into a new era where China inevitably plays a major role in global affairs.


  • The writer is the former vice-minister for foreign affairs in China. She is now chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, National People's Congress of China.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2016, with the headline 'What the US and China are fighting over in South China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe