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US and Chinese tempers rise in the South China Sea

US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter observes the destroyer USS Lassen in the South China Sea. US Navy

US defense officials are open about the fact they sent a guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese artificial island in the South China Sea on October 27.

In response, Chinese President Xi Jinping asserted “islands in the South China Sea have been China’s territory since ancient times” while US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter promised more such freedom of navigation exercises in the future.

Sailing within territorial seas has meaning beyond just advocating freedom of navigation. The move is a way for the US to express that it repudiates any territorial claims China has to seven new islands they have been building up over the past year. With the US pursuing a “pivot to Asia,” it’s also a way to underscore the US commitment to keep trade routes open to other countries in the region like Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia.

The Lassen’s actions, however, came as no surprise to China.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter raised the possibility of sending navy ships near the islands in May. Then, in September, the US sent a stronger signal of its firm will to “sail, fly and operate” near Chinese artificial islands during Xi Jinping’s visit to the White House.

So how has this long anticipated move affected relations between the China and the US?

Seriousness of the recent developments

In the past, most maritime disputes between the US and China have taken place in the exclusive economic zone off China’s coast.

This zone extends 200 nautical miles off shore and is an area where China has special – but not exclusive – rights. As a result, confrontations here are less provocative than those in territorial waters that extend 12 nautical miles from the coast line.

In 2001, a Chinese F-8 fighter collided with a US EP-3 surveillance plane off the coast of the island of Hainan. That same year, the USNS Bowditch was challenged by Chinese patrol vessels. The first such incident in Obama’s term occurred when Chinese vessels blocked and surrounded the US Impeccable in 2009. Then, in 2013, a US missile cruiser, USS Cowpens, was blocked by a Chinese naval ship during its operation in the international waters in the South China Sea.

The US argues that exclusive economic zones are part of international waters – meaning foreign vessels should have freedom of navigation through them.

Chinese law also allows for freedom of navigation in the exclusive economic zone, but warns that China “has the power to take necessary measures against acts violating laws” within the zone.

While risky, the recent freedom of navigation exercises may have important foreign policy benefits for the US. They could build up trust between the US and its partners in the South China Sea like the Philippines, or even Japan or Korea that have current – or potential – maritime disputes with China. For the US, these benefits probably outweigh the risk.

Military-to-military dialogue

The deck of the destroyer USS Lassen in the South China Sea, October 28, 2015. US Navy

Importantly, the US and China continued military-to-military dialogue in the days following the recent freedom of navigation exercise.

This level of communication was possible because of confidence building measures developed over many years.

These are measures designed to “increase transparency and predictability and reduce risk of unintended incidents.” The US and China agreed to these measures during a summit meeting held in November 2014. According to their agreement, “encounters between naval surface vessels” are to be limited by mutually accepted rules.

The effort to establish confidence building measures between the US and China goes back to 1998 when the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement was signed between Chinese defense minister and the US defense secretary. Since then, the Agreement has been maintained with regular contacts as an effective mechanism between the two parties. The contacts include nine annual meetings, two special meetings and 15 working group meetings.

Current events suggest that the US-China military-to-military confidence-building measures are working to build understanding and prevent the situation from becoming uncontrollable by providing channels to quickly restore relations.

Unresolved mistrust

The management of maritime confrontation in the South China Sea is a part of China’s long-term plan to reframe US-China relations.

In a 2010 speech, the Chinese ambassador to the US referred to the two states as “great countries” that “should respect the other’s major interests and concerns.”

Respecting each other’s core interests is one of critical elements of the new relationship that was ushered in by strategic and economic dialogue in 2009. During this latest dispute, the US showed respect for China’s core interests when President Obama clearly stated that the US was “not a claimant” in the South China Sea dispute. He further “encouraged a resolution between claimants in these areas.”

These statements seem to mean the US will not attempt to be involved in resolving the dispute in the South China Sea.

That would be welcome news to China.

China would prefer direct negotiations with other direct claimants to the South China Sea like Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Chinese Defense Minister reaffirmed that the disputes shall be solved by “bilateral negotiations between the parties directly involved.”

The US has a difficult road ahead – balancing moves that reaffirm its own and other countries’ rights to navigate the South China Sea without raising China’s ire by stepping in to broker long term agreements.

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