By Frank Ching
Over the last two weeks, China and the United States moved dangerously close to the brink of war for the first time in almost two decades, but the annual security forum in Singapore saw the two sides adopt a less hawkish, while still firm, stance on disputes in the South China Sea. Last week, after the United States demanded that China halt permanently its land reclamation and construction work in disputed waters, the Global Times, a Chinese state-owned newspaper, warned that ��war is inevitable�� unless the United States stopped making such demands.
At the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, the American defense secretary, Ashton Carter, repeated the demand for ��an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation,�� but made it clear that it applied not only to China but to ��all claimants,�� which Beijing appreciated. ��The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world,�� Carter said. In words that were evidently directed at China, he added: ��Turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.�� Admiral Sun Jiangguo, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army and the head of the Chinese delegation, countered Carter’s remarks by asserting that China’s construction work in the Spratly Islands ��is ��justified, legitimate and reasonable.�� However, the admiral was not confrontational in his address and asserted that ��China has exercised enormous restraint�� and that the South China Sea has remained, ��on the whole, peaceful and stable.��
‘At a standoff’ The two countries appear to be at a standoff, with China insisting that it will continue its construction work on its artificial islands. The United States, it appears, doesn’t really have a strategy for dealing with China, merely hoping that it will stop doing what it is doing. To be fair, Carter also called on ASEAN and China to conclude a code of conduct on the South China Sea this year and for claimants, which include Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, ��to pursue international legal arbitration and other peaceful means to resolve these disputes.�� However, though China and ASEAN agreed in 2002 to negotiate such an agreement, Beijing appears to be reluctant to sign such an accord, which presumably will mean that it will have to stop its current activities, including militarization of its artificial islands.
China has also ruled out international legal arbitration, a route being pursued by the Philippines.
So, unless China fundamentally changes its policy, there seems little that the United States can do, either unilaterally or jointly with its allies and partners in the region. The hope seems to be that if enough pressure is brought to bear on China, it will change its stance but that possibility appears remote.