Panel: China and U.S. Maintain Fundamental Rifts in Talking About the South China Sea

April 21, 2017 1:45 PM
The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) conducts routine patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the People’s Liberation Army-Navy [PLA(N)] guided-missile frigate Yancheng (FFG 546) sails close behind, on May 11, 2015. US Navy photo.

The widely different definitions given to phrases, such as “freedom of navigation” or “rule of law,” between the West and Beijing greatly complicate the disputes in the South China Sea, three Chinese policy and maritime affairs experts agreed Thursday.

Bernard Cole, of CNA, said, Beijing leaders “still mention the hundred years of humiliation” of Western political and economic exploitation as rationales for their strategy, and, in that light, they view United States as a power that is “trying to surround and contain” China.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank, he said they use conflicting definitions of its “9-Dash” line claims, often without latitudinal or longitudinal points of reference, further clouding the territorial disputes Beijing has with its neighbors in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea.

No government in Beijing from its imperial age in the 18th century until now has every really defined this claim, but in these cases its perception of right to disputed territory is often more important than the reality or international legal rulings, he said.

Alice Eckman, of the Center for Asian Studies at the French Institute of International Relations, added, “We mean quite different things” when phrases such as rule of law and freedom of navigation are used. There is a need for both nations to “clarify what we really mean.”

For example on the phrase “freedom of navigation,” Cole said the United States and China “agree fully on merchant vessels, not naval vessels.” Another misunderstanding between the two is how the United States views the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea.

Chinese leaders see the alliances that the United States has with countries such as Japan and the Philippines as “completely illegitimate, ” Eckman said, and they are willing to challenge those relationships in the belief that the United States will at sometime pull back from them.

At the same time, they look to agreements through its Asian Investment Bank, New Silk Road trading project, better coordination with Russia on regional matters, etc., as ways of extending their influence incrementally. “This is very long term,” and they are stretching this approach into southern Europe.

To counter American alliances and partnerships in other ways and more immediately, Beijing leaders are trying to postion themselves as a great power.” They do this in part by adopting a “hierarchical approach” to developing strategy for the Asia-Pacific.

Although this approach acknowledges, Russia, India and Japan as being major regional powers, she said it sends a signal to “small and medium-sized countries should not take sides” in any contest or dispute. Cole put it this way when the smaller countries are being pressured by Beijing: “Who’s the biggest guy in Asia? … That’s China.”

For example, China’s view in the South China Sea disputes is “the United States and Japan should not be involved” because they have nothing at stake there, Eckman said. As it does in other areas, China is increasingly flexing its maritime muscles with a modernized and growing Peoples Liberation Army-Navy, a Coast Guard with large vessels and maritime militia in these disputes. This goes hand-in-hand with its militarization of man-made islands on coral reefs.
“I don’t see China as willing to compromise” on any of these issues involving territory or maritime questions, even as it economy slows. They dismiss the slackening growth as “short-term hiccups.”

Ron O’Rourke, a naval affairs specialist at the Congressional Research Service, asked rhetorically, “What is it we are trying to accomplish” in the Asia-Pacific. He compared the United States’ actions there to being akin to “8-year-olds playing soccer,” always swarming to the ball without a strategy of how to proceed.

He added there can be a variety of answers to that question of what the United States is seeking: peaceful resolutions of disputes, fulfilling treaties and agreements to providing regional security architecture or preventing a regional hegemon from developing.

“But without clarity and consensus, identifying the next step is more problematic.”

O’Rourke said any American administration needed to be “thinking through these issues” and also taking into account how China views these situations. “The Unipolar Moment” when the United States was the only major power, “that moment is over.”

At all times, “strategy [even by a weaker power] can beat no strategy” [by a stronger power].

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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