Thayer South China Sea: China's Rise and US Naval Primacy | International Politics | China

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Background Briefing: South China Sea: China’s Rise & US Naval Primacy Carlyle A. Thayer May 30, 2012

[client name deleted] 1. The United States will renew its naval power across the Asia-Pacific region and stay "vigilant" in the face of China's growing military, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday. "America is a maritime nation, and we are returning to our maritime roots. One of the key projects that your generation will have to face is sustaining and enhancing American strength across the great maritime region of the Asia-Pacific,” he said. Critics have pointed out that the US involvement in the South China Sea dispute would just complicate the status quo. Will this latest move only exacerbate it? If, so why? If not, why not? ANSWER: Key international shipping routes traverse the South China Sea. They pass through the high seas. These same sea lanes serve as strategic sea lines of communication for all the world’s maritime powers including their navies. International law provides for freedom of navigation and overflight through these waters and the air space above them. The US has and will continue to deploy its naval forces through the South China Sea. The issue of freedom of navigation and overflight on the high seas or what the US calls international waters is a separate issue from territorial disputes over islands and rocks. The US has repeated stated that it will not take sides in territorial disputes. In other words the US will not unilaterally back one country’s sovereignty claims over another’s. This is an issue that the parties directly concerned must solve. The US, however, has an interest preventing territorial disputes from being settled by force or the use of force. US naval deployments in the South China Sea are stabilizing to the extent they deter China from using its growing naval power to assert sovereignty over islands and rocks occupied by other states. China’s South Sea Fleet is being modernized with the latest surface combatants and attack nuclear submarines. In the future China is expected to deploy ballistic missile submarines at Sanya whose missiles will be aimed at the United States. China is also expected to deploy an aircraft carrier to Sanya. In other words, the status quo in the

2 South China Sea is being upset by China’s growing naval power and the build up at Sanya Naval Base on Hainan Island. 2. Panetta encouraged the new naval officers to forge stronger security ties with China even as he vowed the United States would not let down its guard. "We need you to strengthen defense ties with China. China's military is growing and modernizing. We must be vigilant. We must be strong. We must be prepared to confront any challenge," he said. What is the underlining message was he trying to convey? ANSWER: The United States must carefully assess China’s developing capabilities and intentions. The growth of capabilities takes a long time to develop. All prudent defense planners, including those in the United States, must respond to match China’s growing capabilities. Intentions, on the other hand, can swiftly change. Developing military to military ties is one strategy to develop trust and confidence between nations. Military to military ties help each nation to understand the other’s intentions. As Pentagon planners and senior US naval officers have repeatedly observed, China’s growing military capabilities are aimed directly at the United States. This requires the United States to develop counter-capabilities through new technologies. 3. Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, who was on an official visit to close ally Cambodia, pledged US$20 million in military aid. The Chinese Foreign Minister is also set to visit Singapore in a bid to strengthen bilateral ties. Analysts have pointed out that Beijing has embarked on its own charm offensive – by putting its money where its mouth is. By matching its political rhetoric with material resources, China has increasingly built its reputation as a credible longterm stakeholder within the region. Do you think China will continue to stick to such tactic and is it a clever for Beijing to do so? ANSWER: China’s pursuit of international defense cooperation, including giving aid and financial assistance, is no different in intent from international defense cooperation pursued by other countries. International defense cooperation has many objectives including gaining political influence and demonstrating one’s own power. China’s rise has made it a credible long-term stakeholder in regional security. China has a comprehensive strategic partnership with ASEAN. China is a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum and has been proactive in promoting cooperation to deal with transnational or non-traditional security threats. China rarely puts conditions on its aid in contrast to the United States, Japan, Australia and many other foreign donors. China is therefore an attractive partner to countries like Cambodia that resist foreign conditionality on their assistance programs. But China can be very fickle if its national interests change. For example, China once supported the Khmer Rouge. It abandoned them after the political settlement in Cambodia was reached and threw its support to the Hun Sen regime. 4. China and the Philippines have agreed to show restraint in their tense standoff over a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, Manila's defense chief said Tuesday. Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said he had held a brief meeting with his Chinese

3 counterpart in the Cambodian capital on Monday during which both sides agreed to tone down the rhetoric and find "a peaceful resolution" to the spat. What is the significance of this move to the South China Sea dispute and Vietnam in particular? ANSWER: The Chinese military has not been involved in the current standoff at Scarborough Shoal between China and the Philippines. The gentleman’s agreement between the two defense ministers only reiterated the status quo. It should be recalled that China’s defense minister promised no further incidents like the first cable cutting incident with Vietnam, and then a few days later a second cable cutting incident reportedly occurred. The Chinese military plays an important role in South China Sea policy, but other agencies of the Chinese government like the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command the China Marine Surveillance play an independent role. The appear capable of upsetting the diplomatic status quo being negotiated by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs. Since the People’s Liberation Army is a key actor in China’s political system, the words of China’s defense minister should be taken in a positive light. The Philippines does not have defense relations with China comparable to Vietnam’s defence relations with China. Since October last year when China and Vietnam adopted the Guidelines on Fundamental Principles to Resolve Maritime Disputes there has been a decline in incidents in the East Sea between the two countries. The two sides recently concluded their seventh joint fishery patrol. Vietnam should be supportive of any agreement to find a peaceful resolution to the standoff. 5. Your further comments would be appreciated. ANSWER: ASEAN must redouble its efforts to draft an enforceable code of conduct in the South China Sea. ASEAN must then maintain unity and cohesion as it negotiates with China over the final wording of the Code of Conduct (COC). The COC must rectify shortcoming in the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea by clearly delineating the maritime area, islands and rocks to be covered. The COC must also include a dispute settlement mechanism to resolve differing claims over maritime jurisdiction. Finally, the COC must describe in detail the kinds of actions that upset the status quo and are prohibited. Unfortunately there are no signs that China is willing to accept any of these points. Some countries like Cambodia and Indonesia want to drop provisions in the current ASEAN draft that China objects to. China wants to forestall intervention by the US and other outside powers. This provides ASEAN with a window of opportunity between now and the end of year when several ASEAN related summits are held for ASEAN to press negotiations with China.

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