BEIJING — Washington has no intention of sitting back and letting Beijing have all the fun in the contested South China Sea.
For the most part, Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Beijing this weekend offered him and his Chinese counterparts an opportunity to boast about everything going well between their governments: a two-way trade relationship worth just over $555 billion, bilateral investments in excess of $120 billion, as well as ongoing cooperation on everything from fighting Ebola to containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
But it would’ve been impossible for them to ignore the recent U.S. proposal, first reported in mid-May by the Wall Street Journal, to challenge Beijing’s claim of blanket sovereignty in the South China Sea. On May 12, the U.S. Department of Defense unveiled a new plan to counter China’s recent, extraordinary efforts to construct new islands in the South China Sea that, China hopes, will strengthen its contested territorial claims. The Pentagon plan, which has not yet been implemented, would have U.S. military surveillance planes flying over contested places in the South China Sea like the Spratly and Paracel Islands, and naval vessels patrolling within 12 miles of the coral reefs of the Spratlys.
In meetings this week, with members of a reporting fellowship sponsored by the East-West Center, military and diplomatic officials in Beijing insisted to Foreign Policy that their efforts to turn uninhabitable pieces of land into functioning landing strips and search and rescue stations is about fulfilling China’s international obligations to secure peace and stability in the South China Sea.
They believe, unambiguously, that these waters are theirs. “Just like the hens laying eggs, the cows produce milk, it’s there — it’s our own territory that we need to defend,” said Cpt. Tian Shichen, staff officer of the information office at the Chinese Ministry of Defense. “For China, it’s just like an uninvited stranger coming into your house, trying to read the pin number of your safe, everyday. This is how the Chinese feel. And it’s not that China is the only country that holds this kind of position,” said Sr. Col. Zhou Bo, director of the Center for International Security Cooperation in China’s Ministry of National Defense.
According to the Pentagon’s annual security assessment of China, Beijing is currently modernizing its military by investing in power projection, sea lane security, counterpiracy, peacekeeping, and humanitarian and disaster aid. To that end, its disclosed military budget grew an average of 9.5 percent annually (adjusted for inflation) from 2005 to 2014 — a rate that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. This push towards “modernization,” the Pentagon worries, could “reduce core U.S. military technological advantages” in the long run.
Defense officials also worry that China’s construction projects in the Spratly Islands will give them “persistent civil-military bases of operation to enhance its presence significantly in disputed areas.”
“We are seeing a hardening of positions and the beginning of a much more substantive face off between China and the U.S. in the South China Sea,” Brad Glosserman, an Asia expert affiliated with the Center for Strategic Studies, wrote in an email. The sea’s strategic and military significance is growing, he says, but is still not the central issue. “Now it is about territorial claims, and the associated resources. The Chinese claims to territory are part of a larger Chinese sense of nationhood, an assertion of great power status (reclaiming land that they think is theirs), and righting wrongs done to China over time.”
After news of the Pentagon proposal broke, Foreign Policy asked Zhou how Washington’s potential moves might be perceived in Beijing. In an email, he noted that U.S. vessels have operated in China’s exclusive economic zones in the past. Since March 2001, there have been at least seven close encounters between Chinese and U.S. ships and aircraft in the South China Sea, most recently in August, when a Chinese fighter plane conducted maneuvers that brought it perilously close to a U.S. Navy plane in international airspace, some 135 miles off the coast of Hainan.
“It is not that the [proposed] ships and planes … aroused the most rancor, but they certainly make the situation more complicated,” Zhou wrote. “China maintains that the issue is just between China and other claimants. The U.S. should not take a side, as it promised before.”
In his remarks from the weekend, Kerry stressed that the United States and China must come to a mutual understanding over both the South and East China Seas. Notably, he declined to confirm whether the United States will carry out its new sea patrol plan for the Spratlys.
Regional neighbors like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan dispute China’s claim. In January 2013, the government of the Philippines enacted international arbitration proceedings at the (UNCLOS) to dispute the Chinese claims. Analysts and maritime experts have offered up any number of reasons for China’s assertiveness in the region, from its untapped hydrocarbons, to its aquacultural riches, to the security of its nuclear-powered submarines housed at Hainan Island.
For China, this all comes down to sovereignty. “The American moves will increase the tension. That is why we don’t want them to come. But the good thing is neither China nor the U.S. want confrontation,” Zhou said. The two nations, he added, have created mechanisms and established “rules of behavior” for maritime and air encounters that will prevent tense encounters from escalating into something worse. “Hopefully they will work,” he added.