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Serenity in the South China Sea

In Project Syndicate (Worldwide Distribution), 26 June 2015 

CANBERRA – Diplomats and alcoholics don’t always have as much in common as is sometimes assumed. But there is useful guidance for policymakers in the Reinhold Niebuhr prayer that Alcoholics Anonymous has made its own: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

America’s response to China’s rise – and in particular to its assertiveness in the South China Sea – is a case in point. The United States should accept many dimensions of China’s economic, and now military, growth with as much serenity as it can muster. But there are some that call for pushback, and the jury is still out on America’s capacity to make the right calls.

The central, painful, reality that the US must accept is that a major shift in the Asia-Pacific balance of power has already taken place. The days of America’s unequivocal primacy and unilateral capacity to write the rules are over.

Economically, the writing is on the wall. Despite US opposition to China’s Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, much of the region has embraced it. And, again despite US resistance, it seems inevitable that the renminbi will join the International Monetary Fund’s reserve-currency basket. Then there is the immense difficulty the US is having in bringing its China-excluding Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact to fruition.

Militarily, while the US will remain the dominant global power for the foreseeable future, its absolute superiority in East Asia is no longer unchallenged. The dramatic build-up of China’s military (especially naval) capability is no more than can be expected of a hugely trade-dependent regional superpower. It is not easy for some US leaders to say so publicly, but most acknowledge privately that America can no longer expect to have the seas and skies to itself. Its role will necessarily be scaled back to that of regional counterweight.

But how far should serenity extend when it comes to the South China Sea? This is the most sensitive geopolitical issue looming over Xi’s state visit to the US in September. China has been stretching the limits of regional (and US) tolerance with its expansive sovereignty claims and massive land-reclamation activity – some 2,000 acres in the last 18 months – on Fiery Cross Reef and elsewhere. Pushback is required, but within defined limits.

What critics of China’s land reclamation need to understand is that, even without any credible sovereignty claims to the sea area in question, or any islands within it, under international law China does have the right to build artificial islands and installations, including airstrips, on outlying reefs and shoals. The Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia have been doing so for years in the Spratly Islands, albeit on a smaller scale. Although such installations must be for “peaceful purposes,” that does not necessarily exclude some military presence, provided the intent is non-aggressive.

The US cannot stop such activity and should not try. What it can do is make clear that reclamation activity does not, by itself, provide a foundation for any new sovereignty claim or exclusionary activity. The reclaiming country can set a 500-meter “safety zone” around such installations. That is all. China cannot claim a 12-mile territorial sea or a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ); nor can it put in place an air defense identification zone or any other kind of military exclusion operation. And the US is within its rights to make this point by flying surveillance aircraft to within 500 meters of such installations.

As for China’s broader sovereignty claims, again some distinctions are necessary. To the extent that these claims are based on the “nine-dashed line” – embracing some 80% of the South China Sea and described as China’s “historic waters” – the entire international community should reject them out of hand. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – now generally accepted as customary international law even by countries that, like the US, have failed to ratify it – is the only credible framework within which any kind of exclusive claims can be made.

On the other hand, to the extent that China’s claims are based on long use or occupancy of particular habitable islands in the Spratly or Paracel groups or elsewhere (and as such consistent with UNCLOS, to which China is a party), they may be as credible as those of other regional players, if not more so. So the US and other outsiders are right not to take sides about competing claims, and to urge that they be resolved by negotiation or international adjudication, not by force.

Pending resolution of these competing claims, it is also appropriate, in the course of asserting the right to freedom of navigation, that the US and others treat as a de facto sovereign exclusion zone a 12-mile perimeter around such islands. After all, if they are not owned by China, they are owned by someone. As with the reef installations, the wise course is to minimize provocation.

On the issue of freedom of navigation, China should be believed when it says that it is not in the business of obstructing commercial shipping or flights anywhere in the South China Sea. But it has created difficulties for the US – and a continuing risk of inflammatory incidents – by insisting that, within the entire 200-mile EEZ extending beyond its territorial waters, no military ship or aircraft has a right to engage in surveillance and intelligence collection.

American pushback on this front, though justified, should be tempered. In the interest of defusing tensions, the US should scale back its monitoring activities within China’s EEZs and rely more on less obviously intrusive means.

Managing the US-China relationship in general, and the South China Sea in particular, requires, above all, keeping official rhetoric under control. Lines will need to be drawn, but wise leaders will focus on cooperative diplomatic solutions, playing military cards to the minimum extent possible – and perhaps repeating to themselves the AA serenity prayer before creating expectations that they cannot meet.