There was much expectation that recent developments in the South China Sea (SCS) and their potential implications for regional security in the Asia-Pacific would be among the key issues to be discussed during the recently concluded state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the US. However, a review of the post-visit official statements and releases from the two sides revealed no references to the said subject. It became apparent that there was a deliberate effort by both sides to downplay the importance of the issue. In stark contrast, there was much discussion of economic relations and climate change and a joint presidential statement on the latter was even issued. While there was mention of maritime concerns, it was in the context of a larger strategic cooperation for ocean and polar research and conservation, and in relation to military and coast guard confidence building measures. Given the expectations from America's mutual defense allies in the Asia-Pacific region, including the Philippines, that President Obama will call China out over its recent activities in the SCS, the non-mention of the SCS in official post-visit issuances may send unwelcome signals to other claimant states and security allies, and impact adversely on the US’ image as a security partner for the region.
There was much expectation that recent developments in the South China Sea (SCS) and their potential implications for regional security in the Asia-Pacific would be among the key issues to be discussed during the recently concluded state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the US. However, a review of the post-visit official statements and releases from the two sides revealed no references to the said subject. It became apparent that there was a deliberate effort by both sides to downplay the importance of the issue. In stark contrast, there was much discussion of economic relations and climate change and a joint presidential statement on the latter was even issued. While there was mention of maritime concerns, it was in the context of a larger strategic cooperation for ocean and polar research and conservation, and in relation to military and coast guard confidence building measures. Given the expectations from America's mutual defense allies in the Asia-Pacific region, including the Philippines, that President Obama will call China out over its recent activities in the SCS, the non-mention of the SCS in official post-visit issuances may send unwelcome signals to other claimant states and security allies, and impact adversely on the US’ image as a security partner for the region..
Five of the US' seven collective defense arrangements are in the Asia-Pacific. All three of its mutual defense treaties are with states in maritime Northeast and Southeast Asia. Hence, in light of recent tensions and anxieties brought about by certain Chinese actions notably in SCS (e.g. reclaiming and building of artificial islands in some SCS features), many had been looking forward for some space to be given to the discussion of measures to address the issue. While the US had long pronounced its neutrality in relation to the sovereignty claims, it had objected to unilateral attempts to change the status quo and declared its support for a peaceful resolution of the dispute in accordance with international norms. In a September 24 press briefing, US State Department Spokesperson John Kirby said that “what’s happening in the South China Sea will also be on the topic of agenda items … , as it always is when we talk to our Chinese counterparts.” He also said that “it’s unhelpful, we think, to the security and stability of the region for that status quo to be changed again in an overt manner, whether it’s through reclamation or militarization of reclaimed land” (emphasis supplied). Thus, the clear absence of SCS in the post-visit official public documents leads to the question whether the subject was really sidelined in the interest of much larger issues at stake in the world's most important bilateral relations, such as economic and financial issues, climate change, and cybersecurity. Or could it be that both sides reached a tacit understanding on SCS? If so, considering that US and claimant states' priorities and interests in the SCS do not completely converge, it is possible that such mutual understanding may not necessarily be agreeable for other littoral states, including US security allies in the region.
Prior to his US state visit, President Xi gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal (September 22, 2015) wherein he reiterated China's position on SCS and justified its recent actions, saying that “China's development and maintenance of facilities on some of our garrisoned islands and reefs in the Nansha Islands does not impact on or target any other country, and it should not be over-interpreted. These facilities have been built to improve the working and living conditions of the Chinese personnel on the maritime features, provide international public goods and services, and better uphold navigation freedom and safety in the South China Sea” (emphasis supplied). Considering that US' primary interest in SCS has long been freedom of navigation and overflight, was this an assurance intended for the US and was this sufficient to allay US' concerns? Will Washington accept this guarantee at face value and will such an assurance contribute to the withering of US support to the external defense of security allies in the region?
In the same interview, President Xi recognized that both the US and China would have some differences and on account of this, he emphasized mutual respect and understanding, accommodation of each other's core interests, compromise on issues that can be resolved and constructive management of differences that cannot be resolved for the time being. One question is whether the non-mention of the SCS in the official statements amounts to US gradual recognition of China's core interests in the disputed features and waters of the sea, and whether the same borders on or amounts to US acquiescence of Chinese historical claims in that strategic and resource-rich maritime space.
On the matter of bilateral military relations, one of the outstanding achievements of the state visit was the completion of new annexes on air-to-air safety and crisis communications, as well as commitment between the coast guards of the two countries to pursue an arrangement that would provide for surface-to-surface rules of behavior confidence-building measures (CBMs). These efforts build on the 2014 Memoranda of Understanding on CBMs signed by them and would be very important in preventing possible accidents in the SCS, especially in light of Chinese-protested US surveillance flights. Both sides also agreed to work on a mechanism to notify one another of major military activities. While this may contribute to lessening the chances of on-the-ground miscalculations in the SCS for both parties, one wonders whether this would tie the hands of the US in terms of supporting the external defense of regional treaty allies, notably the Philippines, which is becoming more uncomfortable with the ever growing Chinese presence close to its western seaboard. While American hawks may have wanted a firm US red line on the SCS, the more moderate forces at least aspired for the US to convey the legitimate security interests of its regional treaty allies; it appears that even this was sacrificed for the sake of higher-order goals.
The only occasion wherein SCS received considerable treatment was during the September 27 press conference of the two leaders wherein the two sides reiterated their respective positions. Speaking about his discussion with President Xi, President Obama said that “[w]e did have candid discussions on the East and South China Seas, and I reiterated the right of all countries to freedom of navigation and overflight and to unimpeded commerce.” He added that the US “will continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law allows” and “conveyed to President Xi our significant concerns over land reclamation, construction and the militarization of disputed areas, which makes it harder for countries in the region to resolve disagreements peacefully..” Finally, he “encouraged a resolution between claimants in these areas,” saying that “[w]e are not a claimant; we just want to make sure that the rules of the road are upheld.” In response, President Xi declared that “[i]slands in the South China Sea since ancient times are China’s territory. We have the right to uphold our own territorial sovereignty and lawful and legitimate maritime rights and interests. We are committed to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea, managing differences and disputes through dialogue, and addressing disputes through negotiation, consultation, and peaceful manner, and exploring ways to achieve mutual benefit through cooperation.” Considering that both sides seemed to have at least a minimum bare agreement on the need to resolve differences in a peaceful way, one wonders why even such a motherhood statement was not reflected in the final joint statement.
The failure to reflect SCS in the final official post-visit documents may be indicative of the degree of mutual disagreement on the matter, but for US regional treaty allies it could be more than that. Such non-reflection may represent a victory for China in terms of limiting vocal US opposition to its recent actions in the disputed sea and a defeat for the hopes of littoral states of ever hearing a stronger US resolve to criticize China for its unilateral moves. As such, one wonders whether such “candid discussions” will be enough to dissuade or deter China from further reclamation and island-building undertakings in SCS in the future.
President Xi's state visit can be seen from the perspective of continuing efforts on the part of major powers US and China to try to work out their differences and cooperate on the pursuit of shared interests or on issues that are less sensitive for both of them. The visit did not put an end to their differences but it laid out some broad consensus and demonstrated commitment to work out resolvable issues. For intractable concerns, the visit opened discussion for possible mechanisms that can be put in place to manage them. The visit provided a high level venue for leaders of both sides to exchange views and become more intimate with each country's respective national interests, which have both confluences and variances. Thus, the visit may have contributed much in terms of bolstering China-US major power relations, but the same may have come at a cost of diminishing perceived US commitment towards its treaty allies.
For several decades, US security presence had underpinned Asia-Pacific security and stability and while changing regional dynamics suggest the need to share this responsibility with emerging resident powers, it is still important for the US to actively contribute in tackling key regional security concerns if it wants to remain a relevant player in this part of the world. It is well known that China's economic clout in the region already eclipses that of the US, while the long delay in take-off of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership – the key economic pillar of the rebalance - does not help. If the US should be seen as faltering now in one of the few remaining areas where its role is still recognized, it may not bode well for US efforts to play a critical role in the region in the years to come. This realization may have prompted recent talk about the US possibly sending patrols within 12 nautical miles of the features presently occupied by China, the final decision of which, it is said, still lies with President Obama.
Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Project Consultant to the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation Inc. He is also an Assistant Professorial Lecturer for International Studies at De La Salle University and Contributing Editor (Reviews) for Asian Politics & Policy.