The United States and the South China Sea
There are two things that one ought to remember when contemplating the possible role of the United States in the South China Sea (or, as the Philippine Government now prefers to call it, the West Philippine Sea).
The first is that the United States is a global power with many global concerns and many global issues on which it needs the cooperation of China, a rising military, economic and diplomatic power in its own right. The other is that the disputes in the South China Sea are not military or even legal but political and diplomatic in nature.
The hope of invoking U.S. military assistance in case of a military confrontation with China is futile at best and fatal at worst, as such an invocation would provoke Washington into second, third or even fourth thoughts about the matter and thus could result in unforeseen consequences. After all, the U.S. needs, or may need in the future, Chinese cooperation on a host of global issues – trade, the relative values of currencies, the international trading system, the global economy, climate change, environmental protection, energy, raw materials, the Middle East, Syria, Iran and North Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan, etc.
The U.S. is right in affirming the fact of its neutrality on the sovereignty and jurisdictional disputes in the South China Sea and in stressing its interest in peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, in the prevalence of the rule of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and in freedom of navigation and overflight.
However, the emphases here should be reversed. U. S. statements should emphasize first its interests, which it shares with the rest of the international community, including all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, claimants and non-claimants alike. All other countries that are located in East Asia or trade with it, including Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, China itself, the oil exporters of the Middle East, and several European, Latin American and African countries, have similar interests. Only after stressing these interests and principles should the U. S. proclaim its non-involvement in the legal niceties of the disputes, which no sound mind can see being resolved in the near future, anyway.
The U.S. should do two other things. One is to ratify the 1982 UNCLOS, which the Obama administration has re-submitted to the U. S. Senate for its advice on and consent to the convention’s ratification. Without being party to the convention, the U.S. would be treading on rather shaky ground in invoking international law in the case of the South China Sea.
The other is to come to some understanding with China on what can and cannot be done, particularly in terms of military surveillance, by one country in or over another country’s exclusive economic zone. For all we know, secret and back-room negotiations may be taking place between the two powers. If so, we expect some kind of announcement – soon.
Of course, China should make clearer the nature of its claims to the waters of the South China Sea and, to the extent possible, align those claims with the 1982 UNCLOS.
A note on nomenclature: "West Philippine Sea" is of very recent coinage. The international name of the area, given by Western mapmakers of old, is "South China Sea." The Chinese call it "nan hai" or South Sea, that is, south of China, while the Vietnamese call it East Sea, that is, east of Vietnam. Just what is South Sea or East Sea in this context is ambiguous and, it seems, deliberately unclear.
On the other hand, the Philippines, most recently in March 2009, has made it clear that it is claiming only the land features within a certain area of the Spratlys and Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal), and the waters that those features legitimately generate under the 1982 UNCLOS. Calling the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea raises the question of what the "West Philippine Sea" covers and implies coverage of the entire body of water internationally known as the South China Sea. If the latter, what is it that the Philippines precisely claims; what prevails: the March 2009 definition or "West Philippine Sea"?
The author is Head, ASEAN Studies Centre at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.
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