This week sees another test of America’s “Asia pivot,” as China sends a new batch of ships to ratchet up its contest with the Philippines over the intrinsically worthless, unprepossessing but strategically located Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. After seven weeks, neither Beijing nor Manila seems willing or able to back down from the confrontation.The Chinese place the shoal within a “nine-dashed line” on maps dating back to the Nationalist government in the 1940s. Whenever pressed for a historical basis of this dotted line, Chinese diplomats remain evasive. They seem to consider the deployment of more ships into the area as convincing enough. China’s claims in the region are both passionately felt and hard to advance in accordance with prevailing ideas about international law. As Reuters reports,
If Beijing defined its claim to conform with the provisions of this treaty [the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea], it would almost certainly reduce the scope of Chinese territory and expose the government to criticism from vocal nationalists.Alternatively, if Beijing was to maximize the extent of its claim to include all or most of the territory within the nine-dashed line, it would be difficult to justify under international law and antagonize its neighbors.
There is, however, no way the Chinese government can give much ground on these claims without facing a firestorm of fury back home. For Chinese nationalists, these are commonsense claims that are solidly grounded in history, reason and law — and they demand that a government which claims to be helping China ‘rise’ in the world assert itself in the South China Sea.Meanwhile, with its own foggy claims on the shoal, Manila is loath to settle for a negotiation that would speed up the creep of Chinese sovereignty. The dispute is no small issue to Filipinos at home or overseas, with protestors gathering in San Francisco to assert their nation’s sovereignty.This newfound strut in the steps of China’s smaller neighbor is a problem for American strategy. After the Obama administration’s pledge of diplomatic and military support, the Philippines and others are now bold enough to stand their ground against Beijing on exactly these sorts of standoffs — and public opinion, often not very sophisticated about the way these things work, demands that politicians take a tougher stance now that they have a big ally behind them.“They think they have the U.S. on their side,” says one expert. So do Malaysia, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam — all of whom have sometimes overlapping claims that conflict with China in the waters off its coast.In reality, what the US most wants is peace and the right of free navigation. As in many heated disputes around the world, the US doesn’t really care where the squabbling neighbors draw their boundary — we want them to stop quarreling and to agree. That’s incompatible with China riding roughshod over its neighbors, but it is also incompatible with endless crises any one of which could boil over into something larger.Domestic political pressures in all these countries, China emphatically included, make a final settlement of the maritime borders difficult, but a general settlement of all these questions along lines broadly acceptable to all parties must be America’s goal. We won’t reach it anytime soon, but it’s the only way to stop the endless round of crises and threats.