Gunboat Diplomacy in the South China Sea

Photo: DigitalGlobe

The South China Sea (SCS) is already plagued by competing territorial claims from China, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, among others. Factor in a powerful Chinese state and an equally aggressive American one: tensions are bound to escalate. And they have, judging by ASEAN’s failure to produce a South China Sea dispute accord on Wednesday.

China has laid claims to as much as 80% of the South China Sea, and is building islands to reinforce those claims. ASEAN, despite having large stakes in the South China Sea, maintains a neutral position regarding the territorial claims. ASEAN’s Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is intentionally vague and tactful.

It's a different story for the United States. On October 26, President Obama ordered the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, to sail within 12 nautical miles of China's ongoing projects on the Subi and Mischief Reefs, angering Beijing. By threatening further militarization of the Sea and blocking harmonious discussions, the USA is using its presence to push for reduced Chinese presence in the region. Rejecting avenues for regional arbitration, the USA has decided to do what it does best: stick its guns where they don't belong.

The USA has no justifiable claim to challenge Chinese supremacy in the South China Sea. Since the Monroe Doctrine, the USA has imposed, colonized, and destabilized at their whim. From Afghanistan to Zaire, the USA has an extensive and questionable interventionist history. Militarization of the SCS can only lead to further political instability, but American moral pontification neglects that reality.

It’s true that the world’s top 8 container ports rely on the South China Sea to facilitate flows of goods: about half of the world's total merchant fleet tonnage passes through the Sea. Despite that, American concerns about Chinese economic and military dominance in the region are myopic. Neither China's capability nor intent are as strong as many pundits and commentators assert. Claims that China has the interest and capacity to construct, maintain, and arm as many islands as it likes are contrary to evidence which suggests that is not the case. Further, Chinese investment is fueling enormous development of the Silk Road, a project for integration of the Eurasian continent over 10 times the size of the Marshall Plan. A narrow focus on the South China Sea does the USA no favours if it is to protect its economic interests.

China has admittedly shown little respect for the sovereignty of smaller powers, such as the Philippines. China has also been difficult to negotiate with, rejecting attempts at arbitration, and ignoring international outcry. That said, belligerent diplomatic efforts don’t necessarily translate into military occupation. There is no hard evidence intimating a current large-scale Chinese military occupation - obligating the US to respect norms of international arbitration and curtail militarization of the region.

American preoccupation with these territories is allegedly founded on defending principles of diplomacy, discourse and peaceful conflict resolution: all of which are violated by sailing a missile ship into the area. Military showmanship and muscle flexing does nothing to ameliorate this already-tense situation. China's actions may exacerbate existing tensions, but they give the USA no right to parade their military might in the South China Sea.

Tiago de Souza Jensen

Tiago is a Brazilian and Danish-Canadian studying International Relations and Urban Studies at UBC. His studies and writing focus on East Asian IR and sustainable urban development.

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