Crunch Time for Washington and Beijing in the South China Sea

As Beijing installs sophisticated new missiles on disputed islands, is there anything Washington can do to slow China’s land grab?

Chinese People's Liberation Army HQ-9 surface to air missile launchers are seen during a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on September 3, 2015, to mark the 70th anniversary of victory over Japan and the end of World War II. China kicked off a huge military ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II on September 3, as major Western leaders stayed away. AFP PHOTO / GREG BAKER        (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese People's Liberation Army HQ-9 surface to air missile launchers are seen during a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on September 3, 2015, to mark the 70th anniversary of victory over Japan and the end of World War II. China kicked off a huge military ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II on September 3, as major Western leaders stayed away. AFP PHOTO / GREG BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

By sending advanced air defense missiles to a contested island in the South China Sea this month, Beijing has raised the stakes in a showdown with the United States that is about to grow even more tense with the approach of a crucial legal milestone in the increasingly heated territorial dispute.

China’s tough tactics are forcing the United States to decide whether to push back aggressively — even if it risks a military confrontation — or sit back and let Beijing continue to slowly but surely dismantle an international order that cemented 70 years of peace and prosperity in Asia.

This spring, an international tribunal in The Hague will rule for the first time on the validity of China’s territorial claims, encapsulated in an expansive “nine-dash line” that seeks to fence off nearly the entire South China Sea for Beijing. The new deployment of the long-range, surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island, as confirmed by Taiwan’s defense ministry Wednesday, has only underscored the importance of the pending court decision, pitting might against right in the starkest possible terms.

Experts believe the tribunal likely will rule in favor of the Philippines, which brought the suit in 2013 to forestall Chinese occupation of reefs, rocks, and atolls that both countries claim. That will compel both Washington and Beijing to make a choice: The United States will have to decide whether, and by how much, to enforce the ruling with the gray hulls of the U.S. Navy. And China, which has refused to take part in the arbitration case, faces an acid test of its self-proclaimed commitment to upholding the international order that has paved its own rise from economic weakling to world power in a generation.

The tribunal’s decision will mark the next turning point in the contest over the South China Sea, “because either that will deny China all moral and legal authority to do what’s doing, or it won’t,” said a former senior Barack Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the ongoing policy debate. “If [the tribunal] invalidates China’s nine-dash line, the pressure is really going to be on them to do something.”

The spats over the South China Sea have pit Beijing against neighbors like the Philippines and Vietnam for decades; Vietnam and China actually did battle over some of the barren atolls in the early 1970s. In recent years, however, China has aggressively moved to turn its paper claims over South China Sea features into reality. Beijing has spent billions of dollars to dredge tons of sand and coral to artificially add thousands of acres to the disputed islets; many are now big enough to hold air fields and fighter jets, radar and air-defense stations, and deep-water docks.

Just this week, satellite images revealed that China had dispatched advanced air-defense systems to Woody Island, one of the disputed bits of sand in the Paracel Islands. IHS Jane’s defense analyst Neil Ashdown called the missile placement “a significant military escalation,” and said it represented Beijing’s riposte to a pair of nearby U.S. Navy cruises late last year and earlier this year. Those cruises, which passed close to a pair of Chinese-claimed features in the Spratly and Paracel groups, were meant to assert “freedom of navigation” for all countries in international waters, but infuriated Beijing and left some allies confused over Washington’s intentions.

Some experts see the missile deployment to Woody Island in the Paracels — which are closer to China than the Spratlys — as a template for Beijing’s future militarization of other disputed islands.

“If you look at what’s going on in the Paracels, that gives us a good sign of what’s going to happen in the Spratlys,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

China’s new gambit has top U.S. lawmakers seeing red and calling for a more forceful U.S response.

“The United States should consider additional options to raise the costs on Beijing’s behavior,” said Senate Armed Forces Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who decried what he called China’s “militarization” of the region and “coercion” of neighbors. He said that even “conducting occasional freedom of navigation operations are inadequate,” and that to really push back against Beijing, the United States must adopt “policies with a level of risk that we have been unwilling to consider up to this point.”

Tellingly, Beijing deployed the advanced weaponry to the South China Sea just as President Obama hosted the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, at a two-day summit in California — the first to be held in the United States. As in recent years, dueling claims and provocative actions in the South China Sea dominated the talks. ASEAN members danced around an explicit condemnation of China’s behavior, but in a joint statement at the end of the summit the Southeast Asian leaders specifically and unanimously agreed to uphold the international, rules-based order; eschew militarization of disputes; and respect freedom of navigation. China is not one of the 10 ASEAN member nations.

To date, China’s claims and land reclamation activities have driven many Asian nations closer to the United States. Tokyo and Washington revised their joint defense guidelines, and Japan has largely jettisoned its post-World War II pacifist stance. The Philippines is asking U.S. military forces to come back 25 years after kicking them out. Even Vietnam, a communist country with close trade ties with China, is moving closer to Washington and seeking to buy U.S. weaponry to push back against Beijing.

Ironically, though, one U.S. ally in the region is making Washington’s response even trickier.

Taiwan, a key ally that buys billions of dollars worth of U.S. defense gear, seemed to side with China when recently wading into the dispute. Outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou made a high-profile visit last month to Taiping Island, which is occupied by Taiwan and claimed by China, over the strong objections of Obama administration officials and diplomats. China’s former nationalist government, which lost the civil war against Mao Zedong and Chinese Communists before decamping for Taiwan in 1949, originally created the nine-dash line map to encompass its sweeping vision of China’s island realm.

By insisting that Taiping is an island, and not a rock like the Philippines claims, Taiwan is possibly undermining Manila’s case before the international tribunal and providing legal ammunition for mainland China.

“No good can come from this,” said the former administration official. But China is not enthusiastic about Taiwan’s move either, as it underscores Taipei’s claim to be a sovereign, independent state.

U.S. officials believe Taiwan was trying to highlight its territorial claims in the disputed waters before the international tribunal delivers its ruling, which is expected sometime between April and June.

At issue before The Hague court is Manila’s contention that the features claimed by China in the South China Sea are rocks, not real islands. While it sounds arcane, the distinction matters: Under international law, islands are endowed with huge, exclusive economic zones up to 200 miles deep; rocks, on the other hand, are not. And rocks that are normally under water, as were many South China Sea features before Chinese bulldozers went to work, don’t enjoy any territorial sea at all.

But the Court of Permanent Arbitration has no powers of enforcement. And China has made clear since the suit began that it would not cooperate. Experts say that may leave it to the United States to put teeth into the tribunal’s finding, by, for example, aggressively sailing past Chinese-claimed features that aren’t legally deemed to be islands.

“Given we know that China will not comply, what is the role for the United States in supporting and advancing the rule of law and the laws of the sea following this decision?” said Mira Rapp-Hooper of the Center for a New American Security.

The Hague tribunal’s decision will require the Obama administration to decide whether to reaffirm the court’s authority with naval patrols, a step Asian allies are likely to demand. “If they lay new lines on the map, we may need to be out there very quickly to support the credibility of the ruling,” said one Senate staffer familiar with the issue, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Former U.S. officials and analysts say the State Department will launch a public diplomacy campaign after the ruling is handed down, arguing that it is a landmark decision that can set an example for the peaceful resolution of disputes both in Southeast Asia and beyond.

“I think the U.S. strategy is to encourage as many countries as possible to come out in favor of the court and to encourage China to abide by it,” said Glaser of CSIS. That’s one reason the ASEAN statement emphasized the rule of law and peaceful resolution of territorial disputes. But the lack of explicit mention of China or even the South China Sea after the two-day summit made clear lingering divisions in the 10-country bloc. Glaser and other analysts said that Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand have come under pressure from China to water down any ASEAN position on the disputes.

China said last summer it was ready to halt the controversial land-reclamation activities, and Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed on a visit to the United States last September that Beijing would not “militarize” the region. The White House believed that Beijing, after successfully expanding several atolls in the South China Sea, might pause and consolidate its gains — but it has been repeatedly proven wrong in recent months.

“Many of us after the big round of reclamation thought what the Chinese were going to do, is stop and use that as bargaining leverage to seal the status quo,” said the former senior administration official.

Instead, China has kept up its reclamation and construction work on the disputed reefs, doubling down on its gamble and increasing the potential military value of the islets, which could form the nucleus of an air-defense zone right in the heart of one of the world’s busiest waterways.

Although China’s assertive stance has sparked a reaction from Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries in the region that since have sought closer security ties to Washington, the blowback has not been sufficient so far to persuade Beijing to pull back from its course.     

A ruling against China from an independent, internationally respected court like the one in The Hague would be a political embarrassment for a country that has portrayed itself as a responsible player on the world stage. But Beijing could decide to simply weather the storm, as it has calculated so far that Washington and other Asian governments are not willing to risk military confrontation or economic retaliation over the South China Sea.

And whatever the court rules, no one is predicting Beijing will renounce the claims it has staked out or reverse the massive reclamation work it has undertaken. For Washington, perhaps the best outcome would be a quiet freeze by China on its militarization activities, or a conciliatory move to permit fishermen from the Philippines to ply disputed waters off its coast.

But even if the United States goes all in, by stepping up naval patrols, increasing military cooperation with partners and allies in Asia, and bolstering its economic reach with a Pacific trade deal, it may be too late to roll back the Chinese tide. Beijing appears intent on asserting what it sees as vital, indisputable interests in the Western Pacific, even if that means souring relations with Washington.

“They have an advantage and they are seeking to maximize it,” the former administration official said.

Photo credit: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Feb. 17, 2016: The Philippines initiated legal proceedings against China’s claims in the South China Sea in 2013, and filed its full case or “memorial” in 2014. An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated the Philippines brought the suit against China in 2014.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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