The United States Heads to the South China Sea

Why American Involvement Will Mean More Friction -- Not Less

A Norweigian- and Chinese-owned offshore oil rig in the South China Sea, May 2006. (Bobby Yip / Courtesy Reuters)

When U.S. officials are asked to comment on disputes over contested islands in the western Pacific, they invariably affirm that the Obama administration has no position on issues of sovereignty but opposes any use of force to resolve the matter. "Whether with regard to disputes in the South China Sea or in the East China Sea," Deputy Secretary of State William Burns declared last October in Tokyo, the United States "does not take a position on the question of ultimate sovereignty." True to form, he continued, "What we do take a position on is the importance of dealing with those questions through dialogue and diplomacy and avoiding intimidation and coercion." In this and other such statements, the United States projects an aura of neutrality -- even suggesting, on occasion, that the country could serve as a good-faith mediator between disputants. But Washington's stance is less neutral than it appears and more geared toward violent conflict than talking it out.

In the East China Sea, China and Japan are squabbling over a cluster of small, uninhabited islands called the Diaoyu by the Chinese and the Senkaku by the Japanese. Japan has administered the islands since the end of World War II, but China, Taiwan, and Japan all lay claim to them. In the South China Sea, meanwhile, tensions have flared over several island groups, most notably the Spratly and Paracel islands (called, respectively, the Nansha and Xisha by China). China, Taiwan, and Vietnam claim all of these islands, and Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines claim some of them.

Little more than rock formations, the islands possess hardly any value in and of themselves. But they are believed to sit astride vast undersea reserves of oil and natural gas -- lucrative caches for whichever country can get to them. Beyond the economic boon it would be, the Chinese view acquisition of the islands (along with the recovery of Taiwan) as the final dismantling of the imperial yoke of Western powers and Japan. The other claimants, meanwhile, see retaining control of the islands as a necessary act of defiance in the face of China's growing power and assertiveness.

The United States' own interests in the islands are varied. To begin with, the U.S. Navy has long dominated this maritime region, which is a vital thoroughfare for U.S. warships heading from the Pacific to the Middle East. The United States is also obligated by treaty to defend Japan and its maritime lifelines. Hence, "freedom of navigation" in the East and South China Seas is an avowed U.S. national security priority.

The growing involvement of U.S. energy companies in the extraction of oil and natural gas from the South China Sea has added another layer to the United States' strategy. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy, major firms such as Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil have partnered with the state-owned oil companies of Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines to develop promising reserves in maritime territories claimed by these countries as well as China. In October 2011, for example, Exxon announced a major gas find in waters claimed by Vietnam that are also said to be part of China's own maritime territory.

For years, these obligations and interests were taken only half-seriously. In the George W. Bush years, and early in the Obama years, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dominated White House policymaking, allowing the administrations little time to think about maritime strategy in East Asia. That left a rising China virtually unchecked to assert indisputable rights to contested islands in the region and to use military force to back up its words. On several occasions, the Chinese navy thwarted rivals' efforts (which had often been undertaken in conjunction with U.S. firms) to explore oil and gas prospects in areas they claimed. In May and June 2011, for example, Chinese ships reportedly severed the exploration cables of seismic survey ships owned by PetroVietnam, which has partnered with ExxonMobil and other foreign firms to search for oil and gas in the South China Sea. According to documents released by WikiLeaks, Exxon has been warned by China to suspend its cooperation with PetroVietnam. As is typical, there has been little or no official U.S. response to China's actions.

In 2011, with U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama began to address the perceived decline in America's regional power position. Claiming that the Asia-Pacific region had become the new center of global economic dynamism, Obama set out to restore military dominance there. This meant, first and foremost, the reinforcement of U.S. forces in the Pacific, especially the Navy, which is slated to deploy 60 percent of its combat strength in the region (as compared to 50 percent at present); but, as Obama explained, it also entailed the reinvigoration of military ties with U.S. allies in the region, especially Japan and the Philippines. Although Obama has insisted that this so-called pivot to Asia was not intended to punish or contain China, it is hard to view it as anything else.

Hence, while continuing to profess neutrality, senior officials have expressed dismay over the aggressive actions taken by certain unnamed claimants -- easily interpreted as meaning China. In a July 2011 talk in Indonesia, Hillary Clinton, who was then secretary of state, declared that "all of us have a stake in ensuring that these disputes don't get out of control, and in fact, the numbers have been increasing of intimidation actions, of ramming [and] cutting of cables" -- an obvious reference to acts said to have been taken by Chinese ships against Filipino and Vietnamese oil-exploration vessels.

And, as China did earlier in the decade, the United States has been backing up its words with military strength. It has promised additional arms aid and military training to allies that have since shown greater assertiveness in the island disputes. In April 2012, for instance, Manila deployed a 378-foot frigate, the Gregorio del Pilar, to waters off Scarborough Shoal (claimed by both China and the Philippines) after a Filipino surveillance plane spotted what was thought to be illegal Chinese fishing activity in waters around the shoal. The frigate, a former U.S. Coast Guard cutter equipped with an array of modern weapons, is the first of several vessels that the United States has provided the Philippines under a recent aid agreement. Japan, which has received fresh assurances of continuing U.S. military support, has also increased the size and muscularity of its naval presence in waters claimed by China. At the same time, the United States has increased the frequency and scale of its naval exercises in the region -- usually in partnership with longtime allies such as Japan and the Philippines but also with former foe Vietnam.

From the perspective of the region's major actors, then, the United States can hardly be viewed as a neutral, disinterested party. In China's eyes, it is partisan in the island disputes and an obstacle to achieving China's legitimate objectives. Indeed, many in China believe that Washington is actively spurring Japan and the Philippines to assume a more assertive stance on the disputed territories as a way of constraining China's rise. This, in turn, is feeding distrust and resentment of the United States, and increasing the likelihood that future incidents at sea -- however they are provoked -- could spark a clash between Chinese and U.S. vessels. For the other actors, the United States is a source of moral succor, military aid, and, if things ever get totally out of control, direct combat support. In other words, regardless of whether it was Obama's intention when he pivoted to the Pacific, he has surely increased the chances that rash and potentially incendiary behavior by any one of the countries hashing it out in the South and East China seas could lead to war.

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