OSAKA – Once again, China’s territorial claims and construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea have dominated discussions at a meeting of Asian leaders, this time the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur. And, once again, China has rebuffed all efforts to secure a multilateral agreement to end the protracted – and increasingly incendiary – standoff. Ironically, this stance threatens China’s interests most of all.
China obviously disagrees, which is why it is doubling down on its efforts to secure strategic hegemony in the South China Sea. Aiming to establish a fait accompli concerning its claims to sovereignty in the area, China has lately been engaged in concerted dredging and reclamation works on several reefs and shoals of the disputed Spratly Islands. And it has deployed military and paramilitary vessels and aircraft to the area, threatening freedom of navigation – something that US Secretary of State John Kerry firmly rejected in Kuala Lumpur.
America’s opposition to China’s activities in the South China Sea goes beyond words. The United States has made it clear that it intends to continue military patrols, both naval and aerial, in the waters and airspace being claimed by China. The US is also discussing trilateral military cooperation with Japan and Australia, aimed specifically at reining in China. And, although the US is not explicitly supporting the Philippines in the legal case it has brought to the United Nations asserting that China’s claims are illegal under the Convention on the Law of the Sea, the complaint clearly has the tacit backing of most of the Philippines’ allies.
It is, of course, in the interest of the US, Japan, and other East Asian and Western Pacific countries to keep the area’s sea-lanes open and peaceful. An unstable South China Sea would impede the cost-effective transport of goods and materials that are vital to global supply chains, while disruptions to the flow of oil and natural gas from the Persian Gulf to Asian markets would prove particularly damaging.