The South China Sea, one of the world’s most important waterways, has been contested off and on for centuries. These days, with the sea bounded by some of Asia’s most vibrant economies — China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia — the competition has become a virtual free-for-all. Confrontations over territorial control are alarmingly frequent and could get out of hand, with dangerous consequences.
It is not hard to see why everyone wants a piece of the action. The sea is not only an important trade route but is also rich in oil, natural gas, fishing and mineral resources. Nations are fighting over islands and even specks of rocks to stake their claims.
Both China and its neighbors bear responsibility for ratcheting up the tension. But there is no question that China’s economic power and its assertive use of its navy and commercial vessels to project influence has changed the regional dynamics and worried many of its smaller neighbors. Beijing’s ambitions are large: the president of a Chinese research institute, Wu Shicun, told The Times’ Jane Perlez that China wanted to control no less than 80 percent of the sea.
The U.S. is plainly concerned, and rightly so. In recent months, for instance, China has enlarged its army garrison on a bit of land known as Yongxing Island. Wu said the aim was to allow Beijing to “exercise sovereignty over all land features inside the South China Sea,” including more than 40 islands “now occupied illegally” by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. The Obama administration protested that this provocative act risked further inflaming the situation. In return, a leading Chinese newspaper told the U.S. to “shut up” and stop meddling in matters of Chinese sovereignty.
Washington should ignore such diplomatic outbursts, and continue to play a role in seeking a peaceful resolution to such disputes. In addition to China’s activities on Yongxing Island, there was standoff for months earlier this year between lightly armed vessels belonging to the Philippines and China at the Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines. The tensions also extend to the East China Sea, where Japan defused a potential standoff with Beijing on Friday by deporting 14 Chinese citizens who were arrested on or near another disputed island.
China would prefer to deal with territorial disputes bilaterally because it thinks it can strong-arm its neighbors. The U.S. has to take a neutral position on the claims but has proposed a fairer way of settling them — through negotiation and “without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without the use of force.”
Washington’s should not be the sole voice for a peaceful resolution. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Vietnam, the Philippines and others, could make a real contribution by adopting a binding code of conduct for managing the South China Sea disputes. But so far it has not.
That makes it all the more important for the administration to continue to invest more effort in the South China Sea dispute, both working with China and strengthening alliances with its rivals.
The New York Times