Beijing should be ready to “let the US pay a cost it cannot stand if it intervenes in the South China Sea dispute by force,” an editorial in a Chinese state-run paper warned on July 7 — less than a week before the International Court at The Hague (ICH) was set to rule on a territorial disagreement between China and the Philippines.
“China hopes disputes can be resolved by talks,” wrote the Global Times, “but it must be prepared for any military confrontation. This is common sense in international relations.”
The dispute is over an island chain in the South China Sea, the Spratlys, and the maritime rights to the waters surrounding them. At the heart of the issue is sovereignty, with both China and the Philippines claiming territorial control.
In June of 2015, China announced that the artificial island chain it had been constructing in the South China Sea — in disregard of territorial claims by other Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia — would be completed within days. In the year that’s followed, the country has built military buildings, ports, and airstrips on the connected atolls.
In October 2015, the U.S. sent the first of what would become a considerable number of warships — and, eventually, even an aircraft carrier — into the South China Sea as a direct challenge to China’s claims in the region.
As pretext for involvement in what’s a wholly Southeast Asian affair, the U.S. has continuously claimed its allies in the region — notably India and the Philippines, itself — are concerned over China’s bold territorial assertions.
As Forbes recently wrote:
“While it is still unclear which way the ICH will rule, one thing is clear: China’s aggressive standing in the South China Sea disputes has spooked its neighbours.”
But China has made it clear it sees such U.S. involvement as military provocation.
“The South China Sea dispute has been greatly complicated after heavy US intervention,” the Global Times editorial states. “Washington…wants to send a signal by flexing its muscles. As the biggest powerhouse in the region, it awaits China’s obedience.”
China’s military exercises
Accordingly, China’s Maritime Safety Administration announced it would be conducting military exercises in the waters of the South China Sea from July 5 to July 11 — the day before the ICH is set to make its ruling in the case brought before it by the Philippines.
“The drills are a very symbolic expression of China’s resolve,” Zhu Feng, dean of the Institute of International Affairs at Nanjing University, told the Time magazine. “It is definitely also responding to the recent American warships patrolling in the South China Sea.”
Complicating the situation further is the fact that China, claiming the ICH has no authority to rule on territorial disputes, has repeatedly stated it has no intention of abiding by the tribunal’s ruling.
This inconvenience appears to be something the Pentagon is choosing to ignore, however, as evidenced by recent statements made by spokesperson Peter Cook and reported by Reuters:
“‘We’ve pointed to the diplomatic route for resolving these issues…they should be resolved peacefully,’ he said, adding the ruling from The Hague would provide an opportunity for this.’”
Wishful thinking, it seems, on the part of United States.
But there’s another, perhaps even more troubling facet of this entanglement that merits consideration. And, in point of fact, was not-so-subtly addressed in a recent article by another of China’s state-run publications, the People’s Daily.
And that facet can be encapsulated in a single word: Russia.
“China and Russia vowed to strengthen global strategic stability,” reports the Daily, “in a joint statement signed by Chinese President Xi Jingping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on June 25 during Putin’s visit to Beijing.”
Additionally, the Daily points out that “China and Russia have held six joint naval exercises since 2005” and that, for the 2016 maneuvers, “it is very likely that the South China Sea Fleet will take its turn as the main power, and the location might be near the South China Sea.”
If not a veiled threat, it’s at a minimum a reminder to the U.S. that China is far from alone in its military capacity.
And considering the NATO summit in Warsaw is only days away from approving the deployment of four battalions along the Russian border in Eastern Europe — and amid ongoing and increasingly dangerous confrontations between the U.S. and Russia in Syria — it might do Washington, D.C., well to take China’s “reminder” to heart.
Resumption of talks
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on July 26 he supported the resumption of talks between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea, following an international court ruling against Beijing over the dispute earlier this month.
China did not participate in and has refused to accept the July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, based in The Hague, in which U.S. ally Manila won an emphatic legal victory.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi had asked Kerry to lend his support for bilateral talks to restart between Manila and Beijing in a meeting between the two in the Laos capital of Vientiane.
“The foreign minister said the time has come to move away from public tensions and turn the page,” Kerry told a news conference. “And we agree with that ... no claimant should be acting in a way that is provocative, no claimant should take steps that wind up raising tensions.”
The court ruling has exacerbated tensions between the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which are pulled between their desire to assert their sovereignty while fostering ties with an increasingly assertive Beijing.
China scored a diplomatic victory when ASEAN dropped any reference to the ruling from a joint statement at the end of the bloc’s foreign ministers’ meeting in the face of resolute objections from Cambodia, China’s closest ASEAN ally.
Negotiations with China
Kerry, who was due to travel to the Philippines later, said he would encourage Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to engage in dialogue and negotiations with China when the two meet in Manila.
Duterte has already appointed former President Fidel Ramos to visit Beijing and begin informal talks to resolve the dispute, a Philippine Foreign Ministry official said.
Philippines Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay told reporters in Vientiane that the dispute was not between China and the United States but between China and the Philippines.
“We would like to pursue bilateral relationships in so far as the peaceful resolution of the dispute is concerned that is between the China and the Philippines. The others are not concerned with that dispute,” Yasay told reporters.
Peace and stability
Wang, who met Kerry on the sidelines of the ASEAN gathering in Laos, said he would welcome Ramos’ visit.
The Chinese foreign minister also told his U.S. counterpart that China and ASEAN had agreed the dispute should get back on to the “correct” track of being resolved by direct talks with the parties concerned, according to a foreign ministry statement released.
China “hopes the United States side takes actual steps to support the resumption of talks between China and the Philippines, and supports the efforts of China and ASEAN to maintain regional peace and stability”, Wang said.
Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims.
China has repeatedly blamed the United States for stoking tensions in the region through its military patrols, and of taking sides in the dispute, accusations Washington denies.
In an address to foreign ministers, including Kerry, at the gathering in Vientiane, Wang criticized the United States, Japan and Australia for a joint statement on the issue they released late.
The statement “continued to hype up the South China Sea issue and play up tensions,” he said. “Now is the time we will test whether you are protectors of peace or agitators.”
Speaking to reporters on a conference call, a senior U.S. administration official said at the end of a visit to China by National Security Adviser Susan Rice that she had emphasized all parties should take steps to reduce tensions and use the ruling to reinvigorate regional diplomacy.