The South China Sea and Regional Security
Thank you very much for the kind introduction, and thank you, Sang Joo, for having me here today.
You have heard today and will continue to hear about some of the issues that South Korea is dealing
with close to home: the continuing challenge posed by the North, the relationship with China,
maintaining economic growth. But I've been asked to talk a bit about something further afield. The
South China Sea issue is one that does not directly concern South Korea. Seoul, of course, lays no claim
to any part of the Sea, has no treaty allies in the region, and doesn't regularly deploy naval forces to
Yet Seoul does have two key interests in the South China Sea:
- Peaceful resolution of disputes
- Preservation of freedom of the seas
Both of these interests may now be at risk.
As you all know, it's been a tense year in the South China Sea, with a troubling number of mostly Sino-
Vietnamese and Sino-Philippine incidents. There have, thankfully, been efforts to tamp down the
tension, the most recent of which is an agreement between Beijing and Hanoi to set up a hotline
between the capitals and to hold semiannual talks on the dispute. Yet while continued dialogue amongst
claimants and pronouncements on the desire for peaceful resolution are good things, there is much
reason to worry that even more trouble lies ahead in the South China Sea.
There are five broad trends that I foresee leading to greater instability in the coming years. These are
the failure of UNCLOS-or the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea-a weakening of ASEAN (the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations), China's evolving South China Sea policy, Southeast Asian
military modernization, and a potential hollowing out of the U.S. military. While I'm going to address
each of these one at a time, they are, of course, inter-related, and I think that will probably come across
in my remarks.
Failure of UNCLOS
Let me start with UNCLOS. When UNCLOS was conceived, it was hoped that by codifying customary
international law, freedom of the seas would be protected and international disputes would be more
easily resolved. To date, UNCLOS has failed on both counts.
UNCLOS's failure to clearly and precisely describe conditions for delineating maritime borders has
actually heightened disputes, rather than the reverse. Indeed, UNCLOS may have even helped create
disputes where before there were none. What were once shallow reefs in the South China Sea suddenly
became land features to which UNCLOS applied, and which could determine the extent of a country's
exclusive economic zone. Rather than contribute to enhanced stability, then, UNCLOS has had the very
opposite effect, heightening tensions amongst neighbors, who can now claim to all have international
law on their side.
UNCLOS has similarly failed to ensure continued freedom of navigation on the high seas, at least as
understood and defended by the United States and its allies since the end of World War II. While Article
87 does guarantee freedom of the high seas, its definition of that freedom is too vague. Indeed, the
language is vague enough that China can use UNCLOS to claim that its exclusive economic zone is, in
effect, territorial waters, and that U.S. military assets are, then, not free to operate in and above those
waters. Rather than represent a successful codification of customary international law, then, UNCLOS
has instead provided China with a legal argument-however weak-to curtail the lawful operations of
others' military assets in the South China Sea, nearly the entirety over which China claims sovereignty.
Beijing has essentially entered into a contest with Washington over the fate of freedom of the seas in
the waters in and around China-UNCLOS, unfortunately, does nothing to weaken China's hand.
The Weakening of ASEAN
The second trend which I think bodes ill for the future of the South China Sea is the weakening of
ASEAN. Back in 2002, hopes were high that the "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties' agreed to
between China and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would put a lid on the
disputes by committing each state to abide by the principles of the UN Law of the Sea, freedom of
navigation, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. As such, the Declaration was in line with ASEAN's
larger strategy vis-à-vis China: to create a web of arrangements in the economic, cultural, and security
realms intended to socialize Beijing to the ASEAN way, under which disputes are settled by the precepts
of non-interference and decision-making by consensus.
But although the ASEAN states can point to the early effectiveness of the 2002 declaration, its
sustainability appears to be more and more in question. Nor is it clear that new negotiations will
produce a result any more satisfying.
First, China is much more powerful, both economically and militarily, than it was during the period that
led to the 2002 agreement; the Sino-ASEAN balance has tipped decidedly in China's favor. Through most
of the 1990s, ASEAN's GDP was more or less equivalent to China's. Today, China's economy is more than
three times as large. And China's sustained military build-up has given it power projection capabilities
that only a decade ago were non-existent. Beijing has thus been able to increasingly draw several ASEAN
members into its orbit, with many of the continental Southeast Asian states in particular believing their
ASEAN membership is now less a priority than keeping ties with China in good order.
China's growing power also discourages ASEAN's obvious leaders, Indonesia (ASEAN's current chair) and
Singapore (Southeast Asia's most advanced economy), from leading. Concerned that they will anger
Beijing by taking a strong stand on China's aggressive behavior towards their ASEAN partners in the
South China Sea, Jakarta and Singapore are more than content to note their non-claimant status to the
territorial disputes as a reason to take a back seat on the issue.
China's influence aside, the internal contradiction that has for so long characterized ASEAN - namely,
vastly different political systems - may be finally taking its toll. The organization has been unable to solve
some of the most pressing problems amongst its own members, let alone those involving external
states. ASEAN's failure, for example, to mediate the dispute along the Thai-Cambodian border, where
shooting has broken out repeatedly over the past year, has made it clear there's a real limit these days
to the ASEAN way.
ASEAN's heyday was one in which its members could band together to keep outside great power
interference to a minimum. But this was predicated on a declining Soviet Union, a relatively weak China
and a light-handed approach to the region by the United States. This is no longer the situation. As a
result, it's not surprising that one now sees Hanoi pushing for closer ties to Washington, Singapore
expanding facilities to host US naval ships, and Manila explicitly taking note of the fact that it's a
strategic treaty ally of the United States. Unable to moderate tensions in the South China Sea as a
collective, individual ASEAN members will increasingly look to the United States to ensure peace and
While all this has been the United States' traditional role in East Asia, the ASEAN states will be left with
limited alternatives should fiscal pressures in Washington lead to even a partial withdrawal of military
assets from the region-I'll discuss that a bit more later. And, indeed, if that does occur, the ASEAN
region will more easily become the playground for a future Sino-Indian great game. Both these rising
powers will see the seas and the lands between them as keys to providing strategic depth. Their ongoing
contest for influence in Burma-not to mention India's involvement in territorial disputes through its
energy deals with Vietnam-are likely previews of what's to come.
There's little question that ASEAN's rise as a multilateral forum played an important role in helping keep
the peace that has held in Southeast Asia for the past 30 years. But the changing balance of power in the
surrounding region has exposed its limitations as an institution going forward. Unless ASEAN changes its
ways, it will be increasingly irrelevant to both its own members and the powers knocking on its door.
Finally, when it comes to ASEAN, I should say there is the occasional bright spot. Just last month, ASEAN
defense officials met with Japanese counterparts at a conference on common security issues-one
which focused largely on maritime security. This attempt to coordinate efforts to maintain peace in the
region, notably without Chinese participation, suggests that ASEAN may be more open to countering
China as a bloc than it often seems-but only time will tell.
China's Evolving South China Sea Policy
Moving onto the third troubling trend, over the past two years, China somewhat abruptly reversed
much of the progress it had made as a result of its "smile diplomacy" of the previous decade. Even as it
hopes to avoid open conflict, that Beijing will more assertively defend its claims in the South China Sea is
clear. There are several aspects of China's evolving South China Sea policy that are particularly troubling.
I will focus on three in particular.
First, China's apparent claim to almost the entirety of the South China Sea has raised eyebrows across
Asia and here in the States. While Beijing has been intentionally vague about the precise location of the
infamous nine-dotted line on the map it submitted to the United Nations and vague about the line's
meaning, that lack of clarity is not putting anybody's mind at ease. The line-which stretches from
southeast of Taiwan, skirts the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, then turns north and
follows the Vietnamese coastline nearly to Hainan island-portrays the South China Sea as a Chinese
lake. The sea's other littoral states-namely the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam-take issue
with this primarily because it infringes on their sovereignty claims. But China's pursuit of such a claim is
also a potential threat to the United States, Japan, and South Korea, who depend on freedom of
navigation through the South China Sea for trade and, especially in the case of the US, for naval
Indeed, while the stated U.S. position is that it has no position on the ultimate resolution of South China
Sea territorial disputes (only that they be resolved peacefully), I would argue that America does, in fact,
have a decided interest in how maritime boundaries are eventually drawn. China's expansive claims
make the United States nervous because realization of those claims would make the entire South China
Sea the territorial waters of a single country, thus threatening freedom of navigation (for both
commercial and military purposes) on a body of water that the United States considers to be high seas.
Any resolution of the disputes that does not maintain the South China Sea's high seas status could
negatively affect the American economy and inhibit the U.S. military's ability to conduct joint exercises,
gather intelligence, and carry out other crucial operations in the Sea.
This brings me to the second troubling aspect of China's South China Sea policy, which is that China has
demonstrated a willingness to directly confront U.S. military assets operating in international waters.
The most famous such confrontation occurred in 2001 when a Chinese fighter jet collided with an
American EP-3 spy plane over the South China Sea, causing the American plane to make an emergency
landing on Hainan and sparking a bilateral crisis in the early days of the George W. Bush administration.
More recently, Chinese ships have harassed unarmed U.S. naval vessels in the Yellow and South China
While recent incidents have not led to breaks in the bilateral relationship and have not led to short-term
instability, over the longer term they may very well do so. There is perhaps no greater evidence that
China wishes to push U.S. forces out of Asian waters than these quite literal attempts to do so. They
point to a long-term competition between the U.S. and China-one in which the U.S. Navy aims to
maintain the status quo that China so wishes to upset. As Chinese defense capabilities mature, and if
America's military predominance wanes, the potential for real crises will become much higher. Indeed, it
will not be surprising to see periodic confrontations at sea as Chinese sailors test the limits of what they
can get away with. With Sino-American military-to-military ties hampered by China's use of mil-to-mil
dialogues as a prize to be rewarded or withheld, the capacity for Beijing and Washington to manage
crises may very well remain limited for the foreseeable future. Increasingly capable and confident
Chinese maritime forces will not contribute to regional stability; precisely the opposite.
The third aspect of China's evolving South China policy that is particularly troubling is, of course, its
growing assertiveness in protecting its claims. For a country that has repeatedly stressed its desire for
peaceful resolution of the disputes, it seems oddly comfortable with risking military engagements with
other claimants. There was a time when this was business-as-usual. In 1974, for example, the Chinese
seized the Paracels from Vietnam, an engagement that included the use of amphibious forces, jets, and
ship-on-ship battles. In 1988, China and Vietnam fought a pitched battle near the Spratly reefs, resulting
in the deaths of more than six dozen Vietnamese sailors. In early 1995, China occupied the Philippines-
claimed Mischief Reef, only 200km from Palawan Island, backing up that occupation with a show of
While we have yet to see a return to such overt displays of force and it has been some time since
opposing forces clashed in the South China Sea, a return to Chinese activities of the last century seems
increasingly likely. Foreseeing a growing military advantage, China sees little reason to negotiate a
resolution in the near-term when it will soon be able to settle disputes on its own terms.
Some analysts argue that China's use of mostly unarmed maritime patrol craft-rather than naval
vessels-to assert its claims is less destabilizing, as it demonstrates Beijing's preference for non-violent
methods. I don't believe this interpretation to be correct. In fact, I believe use of maritime patrol forces
is more likely to invoke the ire of China's South China Sea neighbors. China's non-naval maritime forces
are generally tasked with missions such as protecting territorial waters, patrolling fisheries, and
conducting customs inspection. Indeed, they are law enforcement agencies. The use of such craft
outside China's 12-mile territorial limit is an implicit signal that South China Sea waters are Chinese
waters. This is nothing if not inflammatory.
Moreover, just because non-military vessels have taken the lead in asserting China's sovereignty claims,
this does not mean the Chinese navy won't get involved. As US Naval War College professor Jim Holmes
recently put it, "if Southeast Asian states push back effectively, you can bet China will dispatch PLA Navy
vessels to enforce its will. As former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew prophesies, 'behind
these small patrol craft will be a blue-water navy' if China's law-enforcement agencies can't get the job
The question, then, is will Southeast Asian states push back effectively?
Southeast Asian Military Modernization
They certainly seem to want to do so. On the diplomatic front, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, and
even Vietnam are making efforts to improve ties to the United States. Singapore has quietly built the
world's only non-US port capable of docking a U.S. aircraft carrier. The Philippines has sought
Washington's public reaffirmation of the two countries' mutual defense treaty. Vietnam launched a
formal defense dialogue last year and held joint drills this past July with the United States. The point of
all this is fairly clear: Southeast Asian states are looking to enhance their ties to the U.S. as a
counterweight to China and are looking to more deeply embed the U.S. in the region. They want
American naval forces present to maintain stability and deter Chinese aggression.
But these states are also taking steps to bolster their own ability to defend themselves. The Stockholm
International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported last year that the value of arms transfers to
Southeast Asia for the period 2005-2009 was double that for the period 2000-2004. Southeast Asian
countries are investing in modern fighter aircraft, diesel-electric submarines, coastal defense systems,
and frigates with anti-surface, anti-submarine, and anti-air capabilities.
The Philippines' air and naval capabilities are still very lacking, but Manila it at least making an effort-it
has recently promised to double its defense budget (though admittedly only to $2.5 billion). Singapore
and Vietnam are another story. Singapore's military is Southeast Asia's most modern and Vietnam's is
developing the ability to really pack a punch. I'll again quote Jim Holmes. He writes:
Southeast Asian states-considered in aggregate-boast considerable resources. Vietnam, for
instance, fields a serious army and is procuring Russian-built Kilo-class submarines for its navy.
Its capacity to withstand Chinese bullying is on the increase. If Beijing keeps up its strident
diplomacy while attempting to enforce Chinese law in disputed expanses, it may create a
'community of interest' among Southeast Asian governments. If small states see common
interests at stake in the South China Sea, they could join forces to constitute a counterweight to
The point is that even as China works towards building a world-class military, its neighbors in Southeast
Asia are not sitting still. None of the South China Sea's littoral states-not even the oft-hapless
Philippines-are about to roll over in the face of Chinese assertiveness in the region.
The question, then, is whether or not Southeast Asian backbone contributes to or detracts from regional
stability. On the whole, I think it's a good thing, as it should, in theory, deter more overt Chinese
aggression. Weakness in Southeast Asia would tempt China to settle disputes by force and on its own
terms. Given the importance of the sea to U.S. interests and given the presence of a U.S. treaty ally
there, Chinese aggression would threaten a wider conflagration.
On the other hand, even with stronger Southeast Asian militaries, there would be reason to worry. With
Chinese nationalism on the rise and with the PLA apparently having a stronger say in policymaking, it
may be difficult for China to step back from its more assertive South China Sea policy of the past two
years. Moreover, even as Southeast Asian militaries modernize, Chinese military leaders are unlikely to
have the respect for those forces that they do for the U.S. military; effective deterrence will be more
difficult to achieve in the face of Chinese hubris. Third, Southeast Asian military modernization will mean
that more countries have more assets afloat in the South China Sea, potentially heightening the risk of
incidents at sea occurring, especially given China's seeming reluctance to establish a code of conduct for
the sea. Finally, military modernization amongst littoral states may embolden those states to more
strongly assert their own sovereignty claims, potentially leading to greater instability.
Even given those risks, I do come down on the side of favoring Southeast Asian military modernization.
That is largely because (1) I believe the risks created by weak states outweigh those created by strong
ones and (2) I believe those risks can be mitigated by continued U.S. commitment to and presence in the
Whither the United States?
The Obama administration has made an effort to refocus America's energies on Asia, and especially
Southeast Asia. In the diplomatic realm, this effort has been somewhat successful. The U.S. signing of
ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and its decision to participate in the East
Asian Summit have been well received.
The United States has likewise adopted reassuring rhetoric when it comes to the South China Sea. While
attending the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed
establishing a multilateral mechanism for negotiating a settlement of the region's territorial disputes.
This proposal marked a change in direction for the United States, which had long remained aloof from
the South China Sea disputes. Especially notable was the proposal's opposition to China's long-held and
consistently stated position that it would only negotiate territorial disputes on a bilateral basis. With this
proposal, the United States surprised China not only by inserting itself into the South China Sea disputes,
but also by implicitly-if not explicitly-siding with the ASEAN states.
Following her remarks at the forum, Clinton explained to the press that "the United States, like every
nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and
respect for international law in the South China Sea." In other words, China could not simply claim the
South China Sea to be a "core interest" and expect the United States to step aside.
Still, while such words may be reassuring, there is concern in Southeast Asia about America's military
staying power. Southeast Asian leaders are watching the debate about defense spending here in
Washington, and they are worried. They are right to be concerned, as more defense cuts could hamper
the United States' ability to maintain a military presence in Asia.
As my colleague Dan Blumenthal and I recently noted in the Wall Street Journal
, spending cuts will
further encumber the Navy's already withering fleet, which plays a central role in maintaining regional
stability and deterring aggression. The Navy says it needs 328 ships compared to the to the current 284,
but that goal remains out of reach. Further starving the already under-resourced Navy guarantees that
the Navy will never have the number of ships it needs.
Indeed, a recent assessment of the impacts of budget cuts produced by the House Armed Services
Republican staff paints a dire picture. Based on current funding, the fleet is estimated to drop to 263
ships; if the automated sequestration cuts kick in in November, that number could fall as low as 238.
The assessment suggests the Navy could see a reduction of at least two carrier battle groups and that
the carrier variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter could be sacrificed "in favor of more affordable but
less capable" F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets-this all while China continues to grow and modernize its own
Why is continued U.S. presence in the region so important? It has provided the ultimate guarantee of
freedom of the seas for over 60 years; nobody else will do so. U.S. presence deters all parties from
aggression. And while all countries in the region are engaged in conventional military modernization
programs, U.S. presence helps alleviate any perceived need for nuclear weapons amongst non-nuclear
U.S. presence is the ultimate guarantor of regional stability. It creates conditions for the spread of
prosperity and for political liberalization. Given historical animosities and ongoing territorial disputes,
the long peace in Asia is a peace that needs to be enforced; the United States remains the only state
capable of doing so. It has also been the only state willing to bear that burden-our friends in Asia hope
America will continue to be the sine qua non
of peace in Asia.
If the hollowing out of the U.S. military is not halted-or better yet, reversed-stability in Asia will
suffer, and conflict will become more likely.
I started off this talk by noting that South Korea has two primary interests in the South China Sea:
peaceful resolution of disputes and continued freedom of navigation through those waters. I have
argued that a number of things threaten these interests: namely, the failure of UNCLOS, the weakening
of ASEAN, China's South China Sea policy, the uncertain effects of Southeast Asian military
modernization, and a potential hollowing out of the U.S. military.
The threat to the second of those interests-freedom of navigation-comes primarily from China's
sovereignty claims over the whole of the South China Sea and its non-traditional interpretation of what
freedom of the high seas allows for. In fact, any resolution of the disputes that does not maintain the
South China Sea's status as high seas-for example, if the sea were to be sliced up into a series of
bordering EEZs-could put freedom of the high seas at risk. As the disputes are nowhere close to being
resolved, this is more of a distant threat.
Yet China's efforts to challenge U.S. naval presence in the region now represent a challenge to the
customary understanding of freedom of navigation. China is slowly attempting to create new norms.
This is why, even while territorial dispute resolutions are a long way off, U.S. military presence today
remains crucial. Without American naval vessels operating in the South China Sea and in Chinese
Exclusive Economic Zones, new norms may take hold.
The threat to the first Korean interest I listed-peaceful dispute resolution-is a more immediate threat,
and one with a potentially direct effect on South Korea. As is becoming increasingly clear, a conflict in
the South China Sea is no far-fetched scenario. Nor is U.S. intervention in such a conflict, especially if the
Philippines or Singapore, which sits at the mouth of the Malacca Strait, is involved. South Korea would
probably suffer economically from open hostilities in the South China Sea, as patterns of trade and
investment would be disrupted.
And if such hostilities did involve the United States, Seoul might be put in a difficult situation. Would the
United States request logistical support? Would it request a South Korean naval contribution to the
fight? Would the United States attempt to expand the conflict to China's eastern periphery in an effort
to force it to fight on two fronts? I, of course, don't have answers to these questions. Hopefully these
are questions to which answers are never needed.
But it does seem unlikely that South Korea could watch a South China Sea conflict from afar, detached
and uninterested. Rather, Seoul would likely find that it has national security interests in the ultimate
outcome of such a conflict-as would Japan...as would India. The South China Sea is a local challenge
with global implications. Given that the dynamics of the situation make a peaceful resolution unlikely
any time soon, regional security may very well suffer in the years ahead.
This section is adapted from Gary J. Schmitt and Michael Mazza, "Weakness of the ASEAN Way," The Diplomat
June 21, 2011.
James R. Holmes, "South China Sea Is No Black Sea," The Diplomat, October 5, 2011.
Dan Blumenthal and Michael Mazza, "Asia Needs a Larger U.S. Defense Budget," Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2011.
This page last updated January 19, 2012 jdb