Avoiding Conflict in the South China Sea

OXFORD – When a US Navy P8-A surveillance aircraft recently flew near Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, it was warned eight times by the Chinese Navy to leave the area. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that, “China’s determination to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity is as firm as a rock.” US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter replied that, “[T]here should be no mistake about this: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows us, as we do all around the world.” So, is a US-China conflict in the South China Sea imminent?

In 1995, when I was serving in the Pentagon, China began building structures on Mischief Reef, which is claimed by the Philippines and lies much closer to its shores than to China’s. The US issued a statement that we took no position on the competing claims by five states over the 750 or so rocks, atolls, islets, cays, and reefs that comprise the Spratlys, which cover a vast area – 425,000 square kilometers (164,000 square miles) – of the South China Sea. We urged that the parties involved settle the disputes peacefully.

But the US took a strong stand that the South China Sea, which includes important sea lanes for oil shipments from the Middle East and container ships from Europe, and over which military and commercial aircraft routinely fly, was subject to the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS).

To back up its territorial claim, China relies on a map inherited from the Nationalist period – the so-called “nine-dashed line,” which extends nearly a thousand miles south of mainland China and sometimes as close as 40 or 50 miles from the coastline of states like Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. All of these states claim the 200-mile exclusive economic zones granted under UNCLOS.