Forget Discussions About Peace and Stability — Washington’s Policy in the South China Sea Is Confrontational

Source: The Strategic Culture Foundation, Brian Cloughley

The American guided missile destroyer USS Dewey was reported as having carried out a ‘freedom of navigation operation’ or FONOP in the South China Sea on May 24. According to the US Naval Institute the undertaking involved manoeuvres «within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef for about 90 minutes zig-zagging in the water near the installation. At one point during the operation, the ship’s crew conducted a man overboard drill».

Mischief Reef is 900 miles from the mainland of China, and 12,000 miles from the mainland of the United States. It has been built up by China from a sandy pile of rock into a habitable base and lies in the Spratly Island chain which is claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam, both members of the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN.

A week before the United States sent a warship to «demonstrate that Mischief Reef is not entitled to its own territorial sea regardless of whether an artificial island has been built on top of it» there was a meeting attended by representatives of China and all ten ASEAN countries. The purpose was to continue discussions aimed at establishing a code of conduct in the South China Sea, and on May 18 an announcement of progress was made. It was stated that all concerned nations «uphold using the framework of regional rules to manage and control disputes, to deepen practical maritime cooperation, to promote consultation on the code [of conduct] and jointly maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea».

As stated by the head of the Chinese delegation, deputy foreign minister Liu Zhenmin, «the draft framework contains only the elements and is not the final rules, but the conclusion of the framework is a milestone in the process and is significant. It will provide a good foundation for the next round of consultations». It wasn’t a breakthrough in agreeing about allocation of territory or anything like that — but it was indicative of peaceful progress in an important matter affecting regional countries.

In 2012 the countries involved had agreed that «the adoption of a code of conduct in the South China Sea would further promote peace and stability in the region» and issued a statement that included reaffirmation of «their commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and other universally recognized principles of international law which shall serve as the basic norms governing state-to-state relations».

All these countries are, of course, signatories to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which, according to the Voice of America «provides guidelines for how nations use the world’s seas and their natural resources. It also contains mechanisms for addressing disputes».

But the United States of America, whose coast is 12,000 miles from the South China Sea where its ships zig-zag in ‘Freedom of Navigation’ operations, and its electronic warfare aircraft roam the skies forcing China to activate its mainland defensive radars so that they can be identified as future targets, refuses to sign the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Berkeley Journal of International Law notes perceptively that «Although ratification of UNCLOS is unlikely today given staunch opposition to it in the Senate, the treaty remains an essential instrument of international law, particularly for resolving international maritime disputes. America’s abstention from the treaty is significant in this context, since as the preeminent naval power in the world it should hold a leading role in shaping the law of the sea. Instead, other nations are playing a larger role». But the US Senate is not known for a logical approach to international affairs, and its reaction is usually confrontational.

Source: Forget Discussions About Peace and Stability — Washington’s Policy in the South China Sea Is Confrontational

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