Dark clouds continue to hang over the horizon. The mariner weather lore, “red sky in the morning, sailors (fishermen) take warning,” resonates sharply due to China’s high pressure drilling operations located in Vanguard Bank, inside Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Last month’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) South China Sea conference in Washington provided a forum for experts to address why the international community, especially the United States, should speak out about China’s seabed survey in violation of the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
As Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser to Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Center at CSIS, claims, “If there’s no response to these violations of the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it demonstrates that Beijing can violate international law with impunity.”
China’s violation of UNCLOS, its indifference to the Arbitral Tribunal award at The Hague three years ago, its frenetic atoll building spree, not to mention the militarization of the Spratly Islands, fishing bans in disputed waters and rampant ecological destruction of coral reefs, makes it painfully clear that Beijing’s endgame amounts to a global security threat.
On the surface of it, U.S. policymakers and Indo-Pacific academics see an approaching geopolitical storm, much like a fast-moving typhoon, stretching across the South China Sea.
The soft diplomacy measures undertaken by China and Vietnam at the start of the year, including joint Coast Guard patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin and the two Vietnam Navy warships attending a fleet review in China to mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy is now eclipsed by Beijing’s aggressive appetite for hydrocarbon resources in the South China Sea.
While China continues to protest the U.S. Navy’s legitimate freedom of navigation operations in the Soth China Sea, the White House offers only muted views about Beijing’s troubling actions.
No matter how many Vietnamese or Filipino fishermen lives are lost on the high seas as a result of attacks on traditional fishing boats by Chinese paramilitary vessels, Washington does not seem to notice or care since it’s not in the national interest.
This is evident in the failure of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to get the proposed South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Bill, sponsored by Sens. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and Ben Cardin, Maryland Democrat, out of committee and to the Senate floor. The bill is aimed at punishing the Chinese regime for its “illegitimate” actions to claim territorial rights in the waters off the country’s coastline.
China needs to be a responsible stakeholder in the contested region, but so does America. The standoff, now approaching its third week, between Chinese and Vietnamese Coast Guard vessels with a Chinese survey ship, wedged between them; demonstrates the intractable territorial claims over the potential hydrocarbons below.
The South China Sea is nowhere close to the central strategic element in the overall U.S.-China relationship. The trigger points remain the trade imbalance and intellectual property theft. But what about Washington’s defense alliance with the Philippines and support for Vietnam’s claims in the Paracels and Spratlys?
“The U.S. invites challenges by calling into question its alliance relationships,” writes Kori Schake, deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Foreign Affairs.
Although short of any declaration of any alignment with littoral states, the U.S. State Department stated “that China’s repeated provocative actions aimed at the offshore oil and gas development of other claimant states threaten regional energy security and undermines the free and open Indo-Pacific energy market.”
Vietnam, a former enemy and now America’s strategic partner, should remind Washington that Chinese pressure on Hanoi resulted in the suspension of an offshore natural gas project by the Spanish firm, Repsol in Vietnam’s own exclusive economic zone. The result was the suspension of the project.
With Vietnam assuming the role as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2020, perhaps U.S. policy-makers should begin to set up an exploratory ocean policy team with ASEAN and China to establish a joint development area in the Spratlys aimed at exploration of hydrocarbon reserves.
Of course, the U.S. Navy does exercise its Freedom of Navigation Operations by dispatching warships, but the Trump administration is neutral on any and all territorial disputes. Washington does need to play a stabilizing role in the South China Sea as China seeks to impose its hegemonic control of the region and beyond.
Anders Corr, principal of Corr Analytics, believes that this current situation is a perfect opportunity for Washington to defend the principle of Exclusive Economic Zone integrity, draw Vietnam away from China and closer to the U.S., and deny China access to hydrocarbons.
If Vietnam stands down, it will signal a death knell for any other future major bidder for offshore drilling projects. ExxonMobil likely will too withdraw its the multibillion-dollar, integrated gas-for-power development project, referred to as the Blue Whale.
This same scenario may soon be playing out in the Arctic and that’s why there’s pressure for the United States to ratify UNCLOS sooner rather than later.
With the increasing openness of the Arctic region for economic and military expansion, and according to Rep. Joe Courtney, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, “there’s little time to waste to ensure the U.S. can approach any future discussions from a legitimate position based firmly in our ratification of the Law of the Sea.”
While the White House has plenty of distractions to deal with at the moment, here’s an opportunity to drill down on the U.S.-China relationship. The Trump administration record speaks for itself since they talk a hardline rhetoric but offer no hard power initiatives. More policy experts sharply criticize that Washington should not announce policies that engage credibility in a way it is not prepared to back up.
A good place to start is with Congress ratifying UNCLOS and passing the South China Sea Sanctions Bill.
• James Borton, is an independent foreign correspondent and a newly appointed non-resident fellow of Tufts University Science Diplomacy Center.