Recently the international news service Global Post interviewed me about the U.S.'s involvement in the most recent South China Sea claim dispute between China and the Philippines. Portions of the interview, which we have published below, appeared in this Global Post article and on the news service's website.
On June 4, Asia Society New York will host South China Sea: Maritime Lanes and Territorial Claims.
How serious is the risk of an armed confrontation in the South China Sea now?
Tensions are certainly higher with respect to the South China Sea at present, but the risk of armed confrontation is relatively static. While the U.S. has cooperated with the Philippines in joint military exercises, it also re-asserted its neutrality on the South China Sea issue. Confrontation with respect to disputed territories in the region has existed for decades, and while resolution is yet to be achieved, serious armed confrontation is unlikely given the sea's importance for global commerce and trade.
What are the risks of real or perceived U.S. involvement in the standoff?
The U.S.'s stronger military presence in Asia has exacerbated the situation, particularly as it has emboldened the Philippines to take a stronger stand against China. It also has resulted in China's leadership making stronger assertions with respect to its South China Sea claims. The fact that the U.S. is yet to ratify UNCLOS, which would provide a neutral arbitration mechanism, does limit America's credibility in stating, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did, its commitment "to a rule-based regional order."
What are the prospects of resolution?
The likelihood of formal resolution remain weak, whether through ASEAN, UNCLOS, or on a bilateral basis. If ASEAN could come to agreement with respect to the Code of Conduct, that may be a reasonable first step. But within the ASEAN states, there are still too many competing territorial claims that need to be ironed out for this agreement to be feasible. The only viable resolution is for regional claimants to agree to sharing resources, as it is unlikely that any of the stakeholders will cede their territorial claims altogether. Therefore, the current military standoff, to the extent it exists, must be defused, and then piece by piece, the regional claimants must put together a workable agreement. This should come in the form of joint energy exploration activities, which would allow parties to stake their claims, without suffering an embarrassing, outright territorial loss on the deal.
To what extent is a more confident, assertive China the cause for these tensions?
China certainly shares much of the blame for the current standoff. Its claims to the South China Sea, based on limited historical evidence, do not provide a significant basis to make sweeping, unilateral assertions. By taking a strong stance, and by drawing on nationalistic domestic tendencies, China has made it more challenging to find resolution. Nevertheless, China, perhaps through informal channels, should leave open the possibility of cooperation with its ASEAN neighbors toward exploratory activities. China, as it does in its relationship with the U.S., needs to build trust with its regional neighbors and this may be achieved by taking predictable, rational actions on this issue.
Given allies' expectations and the geopolitical risks, what would be the wisest role for the U.S. to take in the South China Sea?
At present, the U.S. should take a step back from the issue, particularly with respect to its military alliance with the Philippines. It has made its point with respect to its support for a key ally, and the region as a whole, but ultimately it is in the U.S.'s interest to have regional stability and not allow the conflict to escalate further. China also has no interest in a military engagement with the U.S. The U.S. should limit its interest to preserving and maintaining the maritime routes in the region, while encouraging all regional parties with territorial stakes to forge a viable agreement that encourages the sharing of disputed resources. Ratification of UNCLOS would also send a strong signal that the U.S. supports resolution of international disputes through multilateral mechanisms, rather than simply on terms that are convenient to its own interests.