China's Assertiveness Threatens Peace In South China Sea
China has deployed a powerful force of civilian, paramilitary and naval vessels to back up its disputed claims to about 80% of the waters and seabed of the South China Sea, including hundreds of tiny islands and reefs scattered across thousands of miles.
While it has little or no basis in international maritime law for its claims, China has become increasingly assertive because of its growing military power and fast-growing demand for the abundant supplies of oil, natural gas and fish in the South China Sea.
Chinese leaders also believe that a strong stance on territorial disputes is important to shore up their legitimacy in the face of growing domestic problems.
Estimates of the oil and natural gas reserves under the South China Sea vary widely.
Malaysia accounts for half of current oil and natural gas production, while China accounts for only about 2% of oil and less than 1% of gas production. China's small amount of known near-shore oil and gas deposits may be a major driver of its expansive claims.
China's Offshore National Oil Company predicts a veritable new Persian Gulf of oil and gas under the South China Sea, including 125 billion barrels of yet undiscovered oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates are much smaller.
The South China Sea is also home to large, diverse, and highly coveted fish populations.
Chinese patrol boats have increasingly harassed or seized fishing boats from other nations operating in contested areas.
Vietnam and other countries have behaved in a similar manner, but China's greater military might allows it to aggressively enforce legally unsupportable maritime claims.
Many of the areas claimed by China are well inside the exclusive economic zones that extend 200 miles into the South China Sea from Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
The economic zones were established in 1982 by an international treaty called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The treaty gives nations the right to manage and exploit resources within their exclusive economic zones, but not to exercise sovereignty.
The Law of the Sea treaty has been signed and ratified by China and 164 other countries.
Unfortunately, China follows only some of the treaty's provisions. China claims "unquestionable sovereignty" over sea areas and features that are not in its exclusive economic zone, contending it has historical rights to these areas that predate the treaty.
The U.S. Senate has never ratified the Law of the Sea treaty, even though the United States helped initiate and shape the pact. The administrations of Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have all said the treaty is the operative law of the sea and pledged U.S. adherence to its provisions.
Senate ratification of the treaty would put America in a better position to engage with China and other nations to urge full treaty compliance, including the long-standing rights of freedom of navigation for warships in international waters.
China has challenged these guarantees in areas well outside its 12-mile territorial waters.
Already, China has denied Filipino fishermen access to Scarborough Shoal, which lies entirely within the Philippines exclusive economic zone. China has also used intimidation to dissuade international oil and gas companies from exploring and drilling in areas it claims within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone — going so far as to cut the cables of Vietnamese and contracted foreign survey ships in several instances.
Tensions would only rise further if the U.S. became directly involved in the South China Sea territorial disputes.
Instead, the Obama administration should rebalance U.S. military power toward Asia to maintain a sufficient margin of superiority to support peace and maintain credibility with America's friends and allies, while doing its utmost to gain Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty.
The best outcome would be for China and its neighbors to reach equitable agreements to co-develop seabed resources and co-manage fisheries in the South China Sea.
But so long as China pursues its current provocative policies, such agreements will remain politically impossible.
By ratifying the Law of the Sea treaty and maintaining high-level engagement with China regarding both differences and shared interests, the United States could help lower regional tensions and avert a full-blown conflict in the South China Sea.
•By Rechard P. Cronin who is the director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank that studies peace and security challenges around the world.