A Dangerous Message

Wisdom and patience are required to properly balance the interests of stakeholders.
by Zhang Guihong
People lounge at Georgetown Waterfront Park in Washington D.C., the United States, on June 14, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

On July 13, the U.S. Department of State issued a policy statement entitled “U.S. Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea,” which represents refusal to recognize People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims in the South China Sea. Specifically, the United States declared that China’s “nine-dashed line” was “unlawful” and accordingly, rejected any of China’s territorial or maritime claims to the Nansha Islands.

The next day, David R. Stilwell, U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, explained the position in more detail in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He also criticized and condemned China’s behavior in the South China Sea such as using state-owned enterprises to construct and militarize artificial islands around the Nansha Islands, pushing ASEAN states to accept limits on core matters of national interest by legitimizing Beijing’s claims, promoting militarization, and making unlawful maritime claims through a Code of Conduct. He alleged that China seeks to dominate the South China Sea’s oil and gas resources through “joint development” deals. He even urged all countries involved in the upcoming International Tribunal election not to support China’s candidate.

This marked the first time that the United States has comprehensively, directly, systematically, and clearly expressed opposition to most of China’s maritime claims in Zhongsha and Nansha. Washington’s new position was announced on the anniversary of the 2016 controversial arbitration by the Hague Arbitral Tribunal. The statement asserted that the verdict based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is “final and legally binding” on both parties (China and the Philippines).

Ironically, the United States has never been a signatory to the UNCLOS and has even withdrawn from dozens of international treaties and organizations during the past three years of the Trump administration. Washington is ignoring its own values by unilaterally adjudicating the dispute and rejecting China’s sovereignty over some shoals and islets in the South China Sea, which are even not covered by the 2016 arbitration.

The statement is an integral part and substantial stepping-up of Washington’s strategic competition and overall confrontation with Beijing. Recently, the United States has taken a series of actions and measures, both legislative and administrative, to “punish” China regarding alleged human rights issue in Xinjiang and the national security law of Hong Kong. Co-opting ASEAN states is crucial for the White House to implement an Indo-Pacific strategy and to organize a ring of threats around China.   

The statement sent a dangerous message to China, the region, and the world, and will certainly damage China-U.S. relations and put regional and global stability at risk. Bilaterally, the new policy indicates that the United States is likely to engage in more aggressive operations regardless of China’s presence and opposition as it stands ready to embrace conflict with China. Regionally, the new position will encourage and stimulate some ASEAN countries to turn against China and thus increase difficulties of consultations on a China-ASEAN Code of Conduct (COC) and cause risk to regional stability. Globally, the statement will worsen geopolitical competition not only between China and the United States but also among other major powers, considering the strategic importance of the South China Sea as a vital maritime transportation line connecting East Asia to the rest of the world.  

The complexity of the South China Sea is woven with various elements from history, international law, current geopolitics, and major power relations. To emphasize one element or focus on one perspective is neither useful nor helpful when seeking an objective understanding and effective solutions for the South China Sea issue. Wisdom and patience are required to properly balance the interests of stakeholders. To prevent escalation of tensions and promote movement towards a mutually acceptable settlement, a few points should be considered:

First, the solution must be peaceful. Solid consensus has been reached that the South China Sea issue must be resolved through direct peaceful negotiations and that such negotiations should involve relevant parties in the region. History shows that external players including major powers and international organizations have little interest or ability in fairly and sustainably solving regional disputes. On the contrary, their involvement becomes an obstacle and impediment to a peaceful resolution. Since the turn of the century, China and ASEAN countries have been embracing consistent and significant progress in managing regional disagreements.

Second, parties should pledge non-militarization. To maintain free and safe transportation and reduce the tension and rivalry, it is necessary to decrease military activities such as military exercises and military deployment in the South China Sea. Non-militarization is not just a catchphrase but requires joint efforts and real action from all parties. The China-ASEAN COC is a promising development and will set a model for non-militarization. But it is not enough. Outside countries should join the debate and work out a special treaty or mechanism to define, observe, implement, and supervise non-militarization.

Third, a balanced approach is necessary. Stakeholders have different perceptions and priorities regarding sovereignty and maritime claims. While China focuses more on history and international law, some Southeast Asian countries emphasize geography and international rulings. Even in terms of international rulings, China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea originates from international agreements made during World War II including the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Proclamation while the Philippines has argued that its maritime claims were confirmed by the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling. The most reasonable solution to the South China Sea issue must at the same time factor in history, international law, and the concerns of relevant countries.

The author is a professor and director of the Center for United Nations Studies at Fudan University.