Calmer seas and more prosperous voyages
How important are the South China Sea disputes, where are they trending, and what is the American stake?
[Read the full article at the Richmond Times-Dispatch]
President Trump may check his seat belt and life vest twice as he flies between Hanoi and Manila over the South China Sea. The problems of the water below him begin with its name. Trump’s hosts will call it the “South Sea” (China), the “East Sea” (Vietnam), and the “West Philippines Sea” (guess who), while Indonesia calls it the “North Natuna Sea.” It is the home of hundreds of small land features that cannot be called islands, according to a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and dozens of outposts manned by bored conscripts from claimant countries. It is also the focus of much patriotic thunder in the social media of China, Vietnam, and the Philippines, as well as high-profile bumps and grindings among vessels asserting conflicting claims of sovereignty.
But how important are the South China Sea disputes, where are they trending, and what is the American stake? As its various names imply, it is in the middle of Southeast Asia, so island (or non-island) claims conflict with the continental waters of neighboring countries. Moreover, because of its claims, China’s increasing power and presence reach to the heart of the region. But the claims of mineral resources are unproven and contradictory. And the shipping lanes have always gone around the edges, because the reefs in the middle are the Bermuda Triangle of Asia. So the South China Sea is important because of where it is, not because of what it is.
Will tensions rise as China continues to get stronger? Probably not.
First of all, China has entered a “new normal” of 6 percent growth, and in a good year most of the other claimants can reach that rate. China is no longer the scary shooting star.
Second, China is already the main source of goods—the top provider of imports. Although it got off to a late start, it has become a major source of investment as well.
Third, China is tied into the region through its ASEAN-China Free Trade Area, and it is promoting other regional initiatives.
Fourth, there is progress this year on a Code of Conduct that could reduce the possibility of accidents. So the shock and awe at China’s rise that started in 2008 is being replaced by an acceptance of its key role in Asia. The cost of becoming Asia’s Cuba would be great, and there would be little regional solidarity.
What difference do calmer seas in Southeast Asia make for the United States? Less than claimed but more than admitted.