Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


JUNE 2016

We may be on the verge of serious trouble with China in Southeast Asia if Beijing continues to push its territorial claims in the South China Sea. While Secretary of State John Kerry was in Beijing last week attending an economic conference, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was in Singapore meeting with other defense chiefs at a security conference known as the Shangri-La Dialogue. Both sought to warn China's leaders that the South China Sea is a danger zone.

In Singapore, Carter directed criticism at China for its actions in Asia, charging that Beijing risked erecting a "Great Wall of self-isolation" with its aggressive policies. The following day, China's deputy chief of the general staff, Admiral Sun Jianguo, leveled strong criticism at U.S. policies in East Asia, asserting that it encouraged and enabled smaller states to "bully" China. Referring to Carter's speech, Admiral Sun declared: "We were not isolated in the past, we are not isolated now, and we will not be isolated in the future." (WSJ, June 6).

Recently, I gave a UVa-sponsored seminar a hypothetical scenario dealing with crisis in the South China Sea. Here's the case:

"The International Court has ruled that the Philippine claim to an area of rock formations in the South China Sea known as Scarborough Shoal is legal and that it has a right to the resources beneath it. China, which is not a member of the court, rejects the decision and reiterates its historical claim to most of the South China Sea. Recently the U.S. concluded a new defense agreement with the Philippines that reopens Clark air base to the U.S. Air Force and also permits our Navy to return to Subic Bay naval base. In addition, the U.S. will build three air bases in the southern Philippines facing South China Sea shipping lanes. The U.S. has also agreed to sell Vietnam modern weaponry. In return, Vietnam agreed to let the U.S. Navy use Cam Ranh Bay naval base, which the U.S. built during the Vietnam War. Further south, Singapore continues to permit the Navy to use its port facilities. New intelligence reports a flotilla of barges and dredging vessels has assembled at a Chinese port and is preparing for movement into the South China Sea. Several Chinese patrol craft are standing by to escort them to an unknown destination. The Philippine government is asking Washington how it will respond if these ships arrive at Scarborough Shoal and begin dredging operations. (China undertook a similar operation in the adjacent Spratly Islands in 2013-14 and constructed air fields and a port.)"

Seminar discussions highlighted a crucial issue for U.S. policy: Is the South China Sea a vital U.S. interest that may have to be defended with force? Or, is this a major interest that requires vigorous diplomacy but no use of force? Members were divided on this question, but concluded that the United States should not shirk its commitments in East Asia and permit China unilaterally to expand its territorial claims in Southeast Asia.

What's likely to happen? Two possibilities are open:

  1. a truce between Beijing and Washington to avoid armed conflict.
  2. a clash between our navies in international waters, resulting in a diplomatic crisis.

A cooling off in tensions, in effect a truce, would occur if China instructs its navy not to harass U.S. and allied ships transiting China's declared territorial waters off the Spratlys, Beijing also would not press its territorial claims to Scarborough Shoal.

A diplomatic crisis could lead to military action if China rejects the Hague Court's decision and reinforces its claims by sending naval vessels to patrol the disputed areas. In this case, the United States and other maritime powers, notably Japan, would either have to concede to China's extension of its power in Southeast Asia; or, take countering military action. If it chose the first course, Washington risks a collapse of its carefully constructed Asian coalition designed to restrain a belligerent China.

China has a long history of patience in pursuing its goals in Asia. This may be a time when its leaders show restraint and wait for a more opportune time to challenge Washington's preeminence in Southeast Asia. Still, if hardline nationalist elements should prevail in Beijing, we may be in for a serious confrontation before the November elections.

File last modified on Wednesday, 15-JUN-2015 1:52 PM EST

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