Ripples from the South China Sea
A week ago, the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen conducted an allegedly routine exercise within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef, a previously submerged reef that China had built up and turned into a 3,000 meter runway to reinforce its claims to waters in the South China Sea.
In response, China deployed fighter jets on nearby Woody Island, one of three other places where China has conducted land reclamation and built ports and runways to receive PLA Air Force fighters and Navy surface warfare ships. The Chinese Foreign Ministry warned that further U.S. incursions into Chinese “territory” risked provoking military crises, while the Pentagon said it will continue routine freedom-of-navigation exercises through international waters, including formerly submerged reefs like Fiery Cross that have no standing as territory under international law.
Many Korean friends have been alarmed and perplexed at how these developments could impact Korea’s strategic situation. That is a good question to ask, because the stand-off in the South China Sea is now beyond resolution in the near-term.
In the aftermath of Beijing’s sudden and unexpected build-up of the islands and Washington’s demonstration that the United States will not allow intimidation of smaller states or blocking of navigation, neither side is going to back down. For the coming decade, tension in the South China Sea is likely to be the new normal.
For Korean readers fixated on the threat from the North, it may be difficult to see what is at stake with a collection of previous uninhabited atolls hundreds of miles away from the peninsula. In fact, the stand-off in the South China Sea touches on core national interests for Korea.
The first is freedom of navigation. Korea is a maritime trading nation in addition to being a continental power. Over half of the container ship traffic in the world passes through the South China Sea. China too depends on sealanes, and Beijing argues that it would be foolhardy to interrupt its own flow of shipping. True - but with control over the South China Sea, the PLA Navy could selectively stop the shipping of nations it wishes to pressure and isolate, as it has in the past with rare earth metal embargoes against Japan and banana import bans against the Philippines.
Second, Korea has a stake in the existing open rules-based order in Asia. The other claimants to the areas occupied by China have attempted to find consensus through multilateral institutions such as the Asean Regional Forum, only to be rebuffed or filibustered by Beijing, which prefers to pick off the smaller states one-by-one.
The Philippines has taken its case to the International Court of Arbitration and is very likely to prevail, but China has rejected such legal recourse and instead engaged in rapid military expansion on the areas it occupies. It was rejection of international law and adherence to the principle that “might makes right” that led to Korea’s subjugation a century ago - a lesson that should not be forgotten.
Finally, Korea’s very survival depends on the credibility of its alliance with the United States - and the integrity of the entire system of U.S. alliances that have stabilized Asia and the Pacific for over five decades. To be clear, this is not to say that Korea has any security obligations of its own in Southeast Asia. Moreover, the United States deliberately takes no position on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
However, the United States does have an abiding interest in dissuading coercion against smaller states, particularly U.S. allies. And so indirectly does Korea. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call last spring for a new Asian security order for and by Asians was a thinly veiled assault on the U.S. alliance system. The direct physical intimidation of the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, has unmistakable repercussions for U.S. allies in Northeast Asia. Korea does not want a cascading loss of U.S. credibility working its way up towards the peninsula.
The United States has only one clear option. Retreating in de facto acceptance of China’s attempted domination over the South China Sea would only increase the chances of a larger confrontation down the road in the East China Sea.
On the other hand, the United States has no interest in containing China’s good relations with other states in the region, or of obstructing U.S.-China cooperation on issues from climate change to North Korea. The key is take steps that convince Beijing that further coercive acts will be counterproductive. Thus far, the United States and others in the region have assumed that reputational blow-back would lead China to be self-restrained. That has clearly not been enough.
What will likely follow next? Expect further routine, if infrequent, U.S. freedom-of-navigation exercises. The United States and other allies, including Korea, will push for China to address the concerns of the smaller states in forums such as the East Asia Summit in November. The United States, Japan and Australia will help states like the Philippines or Vietnam to be more resilient - providing patrol craft, radar and dual-use infrastructure to give them more control over their own waters.
Korea is also involved in some of these activities commercially, but should be integrated in a larger strategy with other U.S. allies. The United States, Japan and Australia will likely increase maritime patrols and joint exercises, including from time-to-time India. Korea should be part of this effort, but will probably be more cautious.
Korea will have to decide how it positions itself in this new dynamic. Pretending it is not happening is probably not an option. Just this September a Chinese fighter jet buzzed a U.S. surveillance plane in the West Sea, claiming the plane was in Chinese territory. Like the rest of us, Seoul will have to figure out how to dissuade China from coercive behavior, while expanding cooperation in mutually beneficial areas.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 6, Page 32
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
by Michael Green