Trump and the South China Sea: Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason
The author argues that the Trump administration's pause on Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea to gain China's cooperation on North Korea is the right idea for the wrong reasons and proposes using this pause to put in place a more durable bilateral agreement.
The United States claims that one of its main concerns is protection of “freedom of navigation.” But Washington purposely conflates freedom of commercial navigation with freedom to undertake military intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) probes against China and others in the region. It then alleges that China’s interference with probes by these military vessels and aircraft in and over China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) violates the freedom of navigation. China argues that it is not challenging freedom of navigation itself but U.S. abuse of this right by its military. Beijing maintains that it has not and will not interfere with maritime trade.
Southeast Asian countries have not explicitly taken a position on this particular aspect of this complex issue, either individually or collectively. This is understandable because the debate over military freedom of navigation does not directly involve them and is essentially a bilateral U.S.-China dispute that can only be resolved by the two parties. Although the United States has asked several of its Asian allies to join FONOPs in the South China Sea, they have demurred. However, the resolution of this peculiar dispute would be warmly welcomed by Southeast Asia in general. What they fear most is that they will be used as pawns in an intensifying great power struggle.
The United States also claims it wants to maintain the rules-based order in the South China Sea. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a key part of that rules-based order. The U.S. says that in addition to China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are in violation of aspects of UNCLOS and it has challenged these violations militarily with FONOPs. Ironically, unlike most of Asia and indeed the world, the United States has not ratified UNCLOS and may even be violating some of its provisions. It is the U.S. itself that is undermining this Convention — and thereby the rules-based order.
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.