Singapore Forum a Chance for Cooler Heads on South China Sea

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How Does U.S. Counter China’s Growing Military Might?

China has been trading increasingly forceful barbs with countries including the U.S. on the South China Sea. Singapore, a neutral party on the contested waters, may provide the venue this weekend for talks about ways to defuse tensions.

While U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo, a deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, will probably talk tough in their speeches to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, behind closed doors there will be a chance at least for officials from Asian countries to meet.

Ministers and military chiefs will be at the forum where territorial spats in the South China Sea and East China Sea often loom large. China is advocating a bigger role for its military in the region to reflect its economic and political clout, causing unease among smaller states that have long relied on the U.S. to keep the peace.

This year’s meeting comes at a point of high tension in the South China Sea, as China builds on reclaimed reefs and warns planes and ships to stay away from the area, prompting increased U.S. patrols. Carter set the tone for the U.S on Wednesday, calling for an “immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by any claimant” and opposing “further militarization of disputed features.”

“On one hand the heating up of rhetoric is very disconcerting and it looks like we are at the cusp of a test of wills,” said Nick Bisley, executive director of La Trobe Asia at La Trobe University in Melbourne, who has published a paper on China’s participation at Shangri-La. “On the flip side Shangri-La provides an opportunity to take some of the heat out of it.”

Hagel Spat

Last year then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel elicited a strong reaction from Chinese Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong after he used his speech to describe China’s actions in the South China Sea as destabilizing. Still, while the conference is arranged around formal plenary sessions, it provides a neutral setting for closed-door chats between delegations.

There are no plans for Carter himself to meet Chinese officials. Still, while the tone of his remarks this week was tough, his words were carefully chosen, according to Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University in Canberra.

“There should be no mistake about this: The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world,” said Carter. He has requested his department look at options for more assertive U.S. demonstrations of its right to freedom of navigation and flight transit.

‘Deliberately Ambiguous’

“This was not an ultimatum, but one of the firmest statements yet of where America stands,” said Medcalf. “It is deliberately ambiguous about the detail but it is clear about America’s broad commitment to freedom of navigation and oversight.”

China last week challenged a U.S. surveillance flight over the South China Sea. No aircraft has entered China’s claimed territory, Pentagon spokesman Steven Warren said last week. Carter this week refrained from saying the U.S. would fly or sail into the 12 nautical mile zones that China claims around some reclaimed reefs.

Since December, China has quadrupled to 2,000 acres its land reclamation in the Spratlys, an operation described by one U.S. admiral as a “great wall of sand.” The South China Sea is subject to competing claims by five other governments.

Law of Sea

The U.S. condemns China’s actions in moving military equipment onto its reclaimed reefs in violation of international law, John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Friday in Ho Chi Minh City. Arizona Republican Senator McCain and a group of senators will travel onto Singapore for Shangri-La.

“We will continue to work with friends and allies in the region who are equally disturbed about these latest escalating moves on the part of China,” McCain said. “It is very disappointing to us.”

At the heart of the dispute is the interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which has been ratified by China but not the U.S. The U.S. contends China’s claims are ambiguous as maritime territory is derived from existing land features under UNCLOS and not from features that were previously submerged at high tide.

China says the reefs are its sovereign territory and it has the right to deploy facilities for military defense.

“The Chinese people have their own judgment as for what to do,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Thursday at a news briefing, responding to a question about Carter’s speech. “No one else has the right to tell China how to behave.”

Risk of Accident

Defence ministers from the U.K. and New Zealand expressed concern at the forum about the South China Sea frictions and called on parties involved to use talks to reduce tensions.

“We are concerned about the buildup of tension in the South China Sea and the land reclamation, whichever country is undertaking it,” U.K. Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon told reporters on Friday at a briefing.

“There’s always a risk of accident when people are flexing muscles and posturing, but the U.S. and China have handled many crises before and through diplomacy and common sense managed to avoid anything getting out of hand,” said Geoff Raby, Australia’s ambassador to China from 2007 to 2011.

‘Muscular Diplomacy’

“But equally as China exercises a more muscular diplomacy, it harms its longer term interests which is to balance U.S. power and influence in the region because it just drives the other countries close to the U.S.”

No matter what comes from the forum, the changing balance of power in Asia will ensure continued tensions, according to Zhang Mingliang, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at Jinan University in Guangzhou.

“China wants more of a say in the region, while the U.S. wants to assure its Asian allies that it’s still a trustworthy superpower,” Zhang said. “There could be limited conflicts or frictions between the two countries in the South China Sea, but the risks can be contained as neither side would want their bilateral relationship to get out of control.”

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