WASHINGTON – Chinese officials would be prudent not to test the US commitment to a peaceful settlement of territorial disputes in the South China Sea, said analysts of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
Following a 36-hour visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the analysts said conflict in the South China Sea can and should be avoided because even a brief resort to force could trigger a downward spiral in China-US relations, fracture the region and undermine the global economy.
Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS, said all states in the region have an obligation to avoid hostilities and China and the United States have a special duty to secure peace.
“While the United States stands for a peaceful resolution of these complex disputes, there is little doubt that Washington would assist Manila in a crisis,” he said.
The United States will “take sides” when it comes to insisting on peacefully resolving disputes, whether with a treaty ally like the Philippines or a growing trading partner like Vietnam, he added.
China’s decision to establish a military garrison in the city of Sansha shows the Chinese leadership is deliberately escalating its coercive diplomacy directed at other claimants, said CNAS fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro.
Sansha will not significantly improve Chinese military capabilities in the South China Sea without substantial upgrades, but it is nevertheless a strong response to actions that China perceives to be infringements on its sovereignty – including fishing, oil exploration and other efforts to extract natural resources, Mastro said.
“This suggests that Chinese responses to such activities will likely be increasingly assertive, disruptive and provocative for the foreseeable future.”
Ely Ratner, also a CNAS fellow, said prior to the East Asia Summit in November all eyes will be on China to enter into substantive and genuine discussions with ASEAN on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, thereby providing a bellwether of Beijing’s overall willingness and intention to contribute to a regional order undergirded by rules and institutions.
“Though the United States must prevent China from dominating the South China Sea, it must be careful not to be drawn into a conflict with China at the behest of countries like the Philippines and Vietnam,” said Robert Kaplan, non-resident senior fellow.
Fellow Will Rogers said US policy must help tilt the balance away from competition over potential petroleum resources in the South China Sea by encouraging states to pursue joint development and other cooperative activities that will enable all in the region to benefit from the sea’s natural resource wealth.
Research associate Zachary Hosford said overlapping claims by China and other states, too complex and intertwined to be quickly solved, must be managed and done so multilaterally.
“The United States, while amplifying its already robust presence in the Asia-Pacific region, must continue to surge its diplomatic and economic efforts to promote peace and stability in the region,” he said.