China and the U.S. should consider a new agreement to establish guidelines for military passage in South China Seas
China and the United States have already agreed on communication protocols for unplanned encounters at sea. But most encounters between U.S. ISR vessels and aircraft and China’s warships and planes are not unplanned, unintentional, or even unexpected. While the new agreements may make the encounters safer, they will not make them any friendlier or less frequent.
What is needed is an agreement on a set of voluntary guidelines for military and intelligence-gathering activities in foreign EEZs and on definitions of permitted and prohibited conduct there. Such guidelines would provide indicators of friendly and unfriendly behavior and help parties avoid unnecessary incidents without banning any activities outright. But so far, the United States has rejected any and all such guidelines — voluntary or not — as unacceptable. There is now an opportunity for Washington to re-consider its position.
However, any such agreement should be ancillary to a grander bargain on the South China Sea. This bargain would in essence be a political and military stand-off with de-escalation. China would refrain from further occupation, construction, and “militarization” on its claimed features. It would also not undertake any provocative actions like occupying and building on Scarborough Shoal, harassing other claimants in the area, and declaring an air defense identification zone over the Spratlys. China would also agree to a Code of Conduct for activities in the South China Sea — although it may not be as robust or as binding as many would like. The United States, in turn, would decrease or cease altogether its provocative FONOPs against China there and its “close-in” ISR probes.