Joseph Nye, Project Syndicate, June 3, 2015

ontroversy has had a home in the South China Sea for as long as anyone can remember, and particularly for the last couple decades. In 1995 for example, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia were simultaneously attempting to claim a vast area known as the Spratlys. For quite some time, the US wouldn’t touch the issue with a ten foot pole. Eventually, however, the US felt the need to step in to protect its interests in the South China Sea, which encompasses vital sea lanes and airways used for shipping oil and goods from Europe and the Middle East to the rest of the world. The US claimed that the waters were subject to UNCLOS (the standing international law regarding the world’s oceans) and China claimed the controversial, centuries old ‘nine-dashed line’ which extends almost 1,000 miles off the southern coast of mainland China. The dispute was settled with a mutual agreement “that the South China Sea was not a Chinese lake, and that it was governed by the UN treaty,” and this resolution has been effective for nearly two decades. Despite this, over the last 20 years China has never ceased butting heads with its maritime neighbors. Recently, after the stationing of a Chinese oil rig in the highly disputed waters in 2014, the smaller states began to seek American support.

The US continued to refuse to be drawn into the sovereignty disputes. That is, until China began dredging sand to fill in reefs and build their own islands, in at least five different locations across the sea. Just some months ago, images were released of what analysts believe to be a 10,000-foot runway in the works, covering Fiery Cross Reef. The dispute, as it was 20 years before, is the US claiming that UNCLOS grants all foreign planes and ships free-reign beyond the 12-mile territorial limit, whereas China believes that no military flight has the right to cross the 200-mile economic zone without explicit permission. The big problem now, is that if China’s claim is validated and applied to all of their new structures, they could effectively close off the majority of the South China Sea. While China is within legitimate sovereign rights to dredge, the suspicion as to the underlying motive is amplified by their actions in 2013, when the Chinese government unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone during a conflict with Japan over islands in the East China Sea. Then, as now, the US’ response was to fly a couple of military planes over the zone, in a show of nonrecognition for the Chinese claims. Overall, the US goal seems simply to prevent outright Chinese control of the South China Sea. More importantly, however, is that with mutual respect for UNCLOS, and “with properly managed diplomacy, a US-China conflict in the South China Sea can and should be avoided.”

Get in deeper:

 The Fight To Control The South China Sea by TestTube News

Debate: Related Articles
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Controversy and potential conflict represent the very lifeblood of print journalism and mass media. But policy makers, not media, are responsible for policy, and should not let media coverage or hyperventilation dictate their actions.Jonathan Pollack, Brookings, June 3, 2015
China has the right to refuse international arbitration in the South China Sea issue … [The US] must realize that there is always a price to be paid for intervening in other countries’ affairs, and South China Sea is not a good playfield for practicing power politics.Zhao Minghao, People’s Daily, June 8, 2015
Washington needs to state and re-state that what it is determined to defend is a rules-based order, not its naval supremacy … But Beijing’s mistrust of Washington is so deep-seated that even that will not be enough. The idea that US policy is designed to contain China’s rise is prevalent, politically profitable and permeates every aspect of Chinese geopolitical analysis.Yanmei Xie, The National Interest, June 7, 2015
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