China’s reclamation blitz in the Spratly Islands continues unabated, despite condemnation from fellow claimants and outside nations. Chinese dredging ships have been hard at work expanding at least seven features: Cuarteron, Gaven, Hughes, Fiery Cross, Johnson South, Mischief, and Subi reefs. Their work will be largely complete in a matter of months, presenting the region with a fait accompli.
Given the devastating environmental impacts, worrying effect on the regional security environment, and legal violations involved, Washington and its partners are desperate for ways to prevent or deter China from changing further facts on the ground. But that goal alone will not lead to a sound strategy. The situation has been changed too drastically for there to be any going back to the precarious balance in place prior to 2009.
And the current status quo is inherently unstable. A new round of escalation is always just over the horizon, whether caused by a ruling from the arbitration tribunal at The Hague, a violent run-in between the increasing number of Chinese paramilitary forces and Southeast Asian fishermen, or the collapse of the rusted-out BRP Sierra Madre along with the Filipino troops aboard. Any sound strategy from Washington cannot just revolve around how to prevent further provocations; it must help set the conditions for a sustainable solution to the disputes.
The top priorities for the United States and its regional partners are seeing that the South China Sea disputes be resolved peacefully and according to international law. Much of current U.S. strategy is already geared toward ensuring those two conditions. The United States is engaged in substantial efforts to bolster Southeast Asian states’ maritime domain awareness, patrol, and deterrence capabilities, all to prevent more blatant Chinese aggression. Washington is also putting considerable diplomatic effort into pushing all claimants, not just China, to bring their claims into accordance with international law. These efforts must be sustained and Washington must cajole others to support them.
But in light of the unprecedented escalation presented by Beijing’s reclamation efforts, Washington should consider other steps to support the conditions for a long-term resolution.
The State Department, through its Limits in the Sea series, has provided legal analyses of the claims of China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The glaring omission is that of Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur has failed to give an accounting of its territorial baselines, and its claim is often still depicted based upon a map of its continental shelf issued in 1979. But its 2009 submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf invalidated that map. As a matter of fairness, and a relatively easy step, the State Department should issue a position paper on Malaysia’s maritime claims and strongly urge Kuala Lumpur to clarify them in accordance with international law.
Each year, the U.S. military performs Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations and other activities to challenge excessive maritime claims. In fiscal year 2014, U.S. forces challenged claims of 19 nations, including China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. In light of China’s reclamation work, the Department of Defense should add a FON operation to the 2015 calendar to assert that those new features built on low-tide elevations are legally artificial islands entitled under international law to no more than a 500 meter, or 1,640 foot, safety zone. A U.S. Navy ship should transit within 12 nautical miles of one of these reclaimed features (but beyond the 12 nautical mile territorial sea of any nearby rocks).
Legally China could challenge such passage only by claiming a low-tide elevations as a rock or island entitled to a territorial sea. That would place Beijing in an absurd legal position. It is equally likely that Beijing would recognize this absurdity and not publicly object to such a FON operation. In either case, the operation would offer clarity on what China considers these reclaimed features to be. And more importantly, it would substantially help what should be a long-term U.S. goal—pressuring China to clarify its ambiguous maritime claims and thereby shrink the size of the area in dispute to a more manageable space in which claimants can be urged to cooperate.
While there is plenty of opportunity for conflict between China and Vietnam, the most likely scenario for an escalation to violence in the South China Sea involves a run-in between Chinese and Philippine forces, which could worryingly draw in the United States. Between Scarborough Shoal, the ongoing cat and mouse game at Second Thomas Shoal, and continued tensions over Reed Bank, the opportunities for a skirmish are worryingly high. That has only been made truer by the increasing number of Chinese paramilitary units in the Spratlys, whose position is clearly bolstered by the reclamation work.
As such, the White House should give renewed thought to clarifying the scope of its commitment to defend Philippine troops in areas of dispute. It has for years offered an explicit guarantee of protection to Japanese forces on the Senkakus, arguing that it remains neutral on the dispute but sees the features as being under effective Japanese administration. The same should be said of Philippine controlled features, or Philippine forces that come under unprovoked aggression in disputed waters. Such clarity comes with its own risks, but the costs of continued ambiguity have become too high.
Washington’s current strategy trusts that both Beijing and Manila understand where the trigger for U.S. intervention lies—a point not even entirely clear to U.S. policymakers. That is a dangerous assumption given the increasingly frequent interactions between Chinese and Philippine forces in and around the Spratlys. A clarification of U.S. commitments would not only deter China from accidentally overstepping a red line it did not know existed; it would also restrain the Philippines from adventurism that it might falsely believe the United States would support.
It would also go a long way toward countering voices in the Philippines, particularly on the political left, who argue that the U.S. commitment cannot be trusted. And it could help depoliticize the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, signed by the United States and the Philippines in 2014, which would allow U.S. troops and equipment to rotate through Philippine bases on a temporary basis. A clarification of the U.S. commitment may help overcome some of the political concerns that currently see the agreement mired in the Philippine Supreme Court.