An Arbitral Tribunal is expected to rule this month on a South China Sea territorial dispute between China and the Philippines, and the U.S. should be prepared to respond to any Chinese reaction, a think tank panel said today.
Andrew Shearer, senior adviser on Asia Pacific Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the United States should be in “deterrence mode” for the next six months to a year if the court rules against China. Having two aircraft carriers in the region today is a good step but may not go far enough, he and the panel said.
“Beijing sees a U.S. politically distracted by the coming elections” and may see an opportunity to assert its claims to all that is within the so-called Nine-Dash Line, Shearer said. That line extends about 1,000 miles from the Chinese mainland coast, and Beijing says it claims are historic well beyond the 70 years it has asserted them.
After saying the presence of the two battle groups accompanying carriers USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) in waters close to the disputed area is important, Amy Searight, director of the CSIS Southeast Asia program, said there is “no easy solution” if China presses ahead with reclaiming Scarborough Shoal – the source of conflict that the Tribunal will adjudicate – and militarizing it. The shoal is less than 200 miles from Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and is one of its richest fishing grounds. The Chinese navy took control of the reef in 2013.
“There the stakes are very high” for China, the United States and the Asia-Pacific region, she said. The former Defense Department official said by militarizing Scarborough Shoal, Beijing will have created “a strategic triangle” of installations that “dramatically increase China’s ability to project power.”
An airbase on Scarborough Shoal would allow China to impose air defense identification zones and restrict maritime traffic on most of the South China Sea, Ernest Bower, chair of CSIS’s Southeast Asia Program’s advisory board, said at the event.
How other nations – U.S. Pacific allies like Japan and Korea, allies in Europe, and partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – would react to a Chinese rejection of the court’s ruling is unclear. From the start, Beijing has said it said it wanted bilateral talks with the Philippines and rejected The Hague tribunal’s authority in the matter.
The Philippines itself has a new administration, and whether Rodrigo Duterte would move to talks with China is not known.
As for the association’s desires, “ASEAN wants balance,” as it did when Japan was the rising power in the Pacific in the 1970s, Bower said. ASEAN backed off a statement last week calling on China to respect international law when the ruling is handed down.
“No one wants to see China isolated,” Bower added. “They must be able to save face.”
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said recently on a trip into the region that “China is building a great wall of self-isolation” with bullying tactics to get its way economically, diplomatically and militarily in the Indo-Pacific.
Shearer said he didn’t expect much from ASEAN, but “I’d be putting a lot of weight on bilateral statements” between the U.S. and individual allies and partners that say, in effect, “the rule of law has to work everywhere.”
At the same time, when the expected ruling against illegal occupation is announced, “the United States and others [should] act promptly to demonstrate” their support of the ruling and the right of freedom of navigation through international waters, he said. Among the “others,” Shearer named Australia, which has hesitated in the past to send naval vessels through the disputed territories.
Searight said the agenda for the new administration and new Senate needs to include a reconsideration of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea to better make United States’ case for the rule of law in settling maritime disputes. The convention has never received the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate for ratification despite efforts in several administrations’ efforts to win approval and widespread support for UNCLOS among Navy officials.