This month seven years ago at the Hanoi ASEAN Regional Forum, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a very public, and — for the Chinese — surprising, intervention into the South China Sea (SCS) disputes. This move implicated Washington in a way that was probably unforeseen in Washington and in the region at the time.
While the objective of the Clinton statement was to indicate that peace and stability in the SCS was a US interest, in hindsight, by choosing to be so publically involved — over time exhorting China to play by the rules; stop building and militarising islands; and abide by the Permanent Court of Arbitration findings — Washington found itself trying to shape Chinese SCS activity with absolutely no practical leverage (short of the use of force or imposition of trade or economic penalties — actions Washington was correctly unwilling to countenance).
Beijing ignored US exhortations and essentially told Washington to mind its own business. In Beijing’s view, Washington was involving itself in a matter of Chinese sovereignty and security. Beijing is convinced that all the land features in the SCS and, at a minimum, the maritime entitlements appertaining to them, are Chinese territory.
Beijing has been waging a patient long-term campaign to regain these claimed maritime rights and interests. For six decades since the 1950s when Beijing occupied abandoned Nationalist Chinese islands in the eastern Paracels, China has inexorably collected islands, rocks and other features in the SCS through the combined use of force, coercion and occupation. Turning its seven small and long-occupied toeholds in the Spratly Islands into major military facilities is just the latest manifestation of this long-term strategic objective.
Beyond recovering ‘lost sovereign territory’, the defence of China is also directly related to control of the land features in the SCS. Bases in the Paracels and Spratlys provide strategic depth for an enemy planning to attack China via the SCS. Hainan is especially important to the People’s Liberation Army since Beijing has decided to homeport its growing ballistic missile submarine force at the southern end of that island.
China is also hugely dependent on the maritime trade routes that pass to the west of the Spratlys, including trade associated with the much-touted 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Controlling these islands is the best way for China to make certain no-one else does. Now with three large, newly constructed airfields, it will be able to conduct routine airborne surveillance of its SCS maritime approaches, along with much of Southeast Asia.
So, seven years on, where are we today? What has US policy aimed at moderating China’s SCS behaviour accomplished, and what is the way forward?
First, the United States played an indirect but important role in advocating Manila’s decision to go to the Permanent Court of Arbitration over Chinese claims and actions in the SCS. Although Beijing has so far refused to honour the ruling, it provided clarity to a number of the ambiguities in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that pertain directly to the SCS, while driving a legal stake into the heart of Beijing’s historic rights claim. Beijing is now permanently burdened with an extremely adverse legal opinion.
Second, no vital US interest has been compromised. Shipping continues uninterrupted, while the United States ignores (daily, if you believe the Chinese complaints) its requirement for prior approval for military operations in China’s exclusive economic zone. The US Navy and Air Force continues to sail, fly and operate where international law permits: an important signal of national policy intentions and military deterrence that more nations should adopt.
Third, the US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with Manila remains in force and China has not attempted to test it by shedding Filipino blood.. The Vietnamese are even more dug in on their 25-odd Spratly holdings and show no interest in decamping. Rather, Hanoi is adding extra military capabilities to make Beijing think twice before trying to force them out. In short, a more or less credible deterrent is in place to thwart an attempt to push either the Vietnamese or the Filipinos off their Spratly holdings.
What’s more, in the wake of the Permanent Court of Arbitration award, Beijing had to swallow its pride and embrace the blatantly opportunistic ploy that Filipino President Duterte pulled, which allowed Beijing to save face in return for Chinese loans. Duterte now has the big infrastructure loan promises he desired and still has the MDT in his back pocket. The fact that Duterte is hanging on to the MDT is the best example that a positive security relationship with Washington is still a valued commodity in Southeast Asia, as is the recent visit of the Vietnamese prime minister to Washington in May.
In sum, while Beijing’s objective to gain control of all the Spratlys has not been forsworn, it has likely been delayed. Despite having permanently shifted the Spratly military balance in its own favour, China still faces the problem of how get the other claimants off their Spratly holdings without starting a war.
US policy has caused an international spotlight to be pointed at the SCS, raising doubts and apprehensions around the globe regarding China’s future behaviour. Given the very poor hand Washington had to play, this is likely the best possible outcome that could have been achieved peacefully. The Trump administration would be wise to continue to keep the SCS dispute in proper perspective to other more important interests and issues that Washington has with Beijing.
Michael McDevitt is Senior Fellow in Strategic Studies at the CNA Corporation.