To be effective, US policy on the PRC must be implemented early and often
“Great powers are expected to uphold their commitments to international rules and standards even if those rules run counter to that country’s interests – credibility is more important. Second, to be effective, the policy must be constantly repeated.
April 8 marked the 10th anniversary of the start of the Scarborough Shoal clash between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. A decade later, and despite an international court ruling against Beijing, the People’s Liberation Army has extended, deepened and strengthened its grip on the region, including turning several islands into full-fledged military bases.
In this edition of Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines, we speak with David R. Stilwell, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Office of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP) June 2019 in early 2021. He served in the Air Force for 35 years, rising to the rank of brigadier general and served as Asia advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has also flown fighter jets and served as director of the China Strategic Focus Group at the US Indo-Pacific Command from 2017 to 2019. He served in the Indo-Pacific, including as a defense attaché in Beijing, and speaks Korean, Mandarin and a little Japanese.
Q: In 2015, Party Secretary Xi Jinping stood next to President Obama in the Rose Garden and publicly stated that he had no intention of militarizing the artificial islands he had just built in the Sea of Southern China. But last month, INDOPACOM commander ADM Aqualino said they were fully militarised. What happened?
A: Xi Jinping’s statement in 2015 received a lot of attention, in part because it is rare for a Chinese leader to make such a clear public statement and also because of the PRC’s illegal activities at Scarborough Shoals three years prior. You will recall that in 2012, PRC government vessels forcibly evicted Filipino fishermen from Scarborough and have occupied it ever since. Scarborough is 200 km from the Philippines, inside Manila’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and 469 km from China.
After that, between 2012 and 2015, Beijing destroyed incredible amounts of pristine coral reef to create seven artificial islands on disputed features, which, as ADM Aqualino noted, became military bases. The parallels between the PRC’s actions in the South China Sea and those of Russia in Ukraine are hard to miss. Rather than resolving differences through dialogue with fellow claimants Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, Beijing has resorted to force.
Q: Are Beijing’s claims legitimate?
A: It’s a complicated question, but there are ways to determine the legitimacy of competing claims without resorting to the behavior of the strongest. China is a very active signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as is the Philippines. UNCLOS has an arbitration mechanism called the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) to which all signatories have agreed to submit in the event of a dispute. In 2015, the Philippines took their case to ITLOS, suing the PRC for its actions in Scarborough and elsewhere, and won.
The core of the case is the concept of exclusive economic zones – a maritime space extending up to 200 nautical miles from sovereign territory – in which all fish and mineral resources belong to that country. Beijing does not recognize others’ EEZs in the South China Sea (although it requires others to respect its EEZs everywhere else); instead, it claims all maritime space within its ill-defined “9-dash line” covering roughly 80% of the South China Sea.
In 2016, ITLOS ruled in favor of Manila, ruling that China’s maritime claims were illegal, that some of its territorial claims were also illegal, and that Beijing was required to compensate Manila for illegal actions in Scarborough and elsewhere. Beijing has so far ignored this outcome, despite joining UNCLOS.
Q: The Philippines is an ally of the United States. What has the United States done to support Manila through all of this?
A: Until just under two years ago, US policy was “to take no position on the validity of individual claims” while insisting that disputes be resolved peacefully. Then, in July 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a South China Sea maritime policy update that aligns the United States with the 2016 ITLOS award, denying the 9-dash line claims. from China. Given that the international body responsible for setting maritime standards had concluded that the EEZs of states in the region should be respected, it made perfect sense to change US policy accordingly.
Feedback on the change has been positive, and Beijing’s response has been muted. As a signatory to UNCLOS, what could they say? Interestingly, Beijing’s language on the Arctic Ocean is almost exactly the same as our position on the South China Sea (and other disputed maritime spaces). But Beijing’s insistence on Arctic access puts it at odds with Moscow, which also maintains excessive claims to the Arctic Ocean.
Two lessons emerge. First, great powers are expected to uphold their commitments to international rules and norms even if those rules run counter to that country’s interests – credibility is more important. Second, to be effective, the policy must be constantly repeated.
Q: If the United States has made official written political commitments, why do we have to repeat them constantly?
A: Unlike strategy (i.e. national security strategy), politics does not have the same formality, detail, or permanence. This could be because politics is usually political discourse, broad and ambiguous language to maximize flexibility. When I was an apprentice diplomat at the United States Embassy in Beijing (defense attaché), it was disappointing to see how bilateral meetings were characterized by the same tedious and time-consuming recitation of the same points that we heard during from the last meeting.
The PRC would lay out its boilerplate complaints of the three obstacles, and we would come back with examples of the PRC’s repeated failure to live up to its commitments, such as honoring UNCLOS or PLA interceptors maintaining a safe distance from our aircraft operating in the international airspace.
It’s a funny thing about politics, if you announce it once and then shut up, the conclusion is that the commitment to politics is on the decline. Others will be prompted to mount a challenge in order to avoid it. The Syrian Red Line Policy Statement of 2012 is a negative example of this: the policy was announced, but US responses to Syrian challenges were unconvincing, signaling to Damascus that it could use low risk chemical weapons.
Secretary Pompeo’s political announcement in July 2020 supporting UNCLOS and denying Beijing’s excessive maritime claims is a positive example. Continued verbal support for this policy change from the Biden administration reinforces U.S. commitment to the new policy and reassures ASEAN seekers. And it had an effect; Beijing has abandoned policy statements claiming all maritime space inside the 9-Dash line and now speaks in terms of territorial claims – the four island groups of Pratas Islands, Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and Macclesfield Bank (and surrounding waters). This appears to be Beijing’s new policy stance, which is also ambiguous, maximizing flexibility.
Finally, more than words, US actions are the best demonstration of continued support for the policy – hitting a Syrian air base that used chemical weapons against the Syrian people with 57 Tomahawk missiles in May 2017 is a good example. Closer to home, ADM Aqualino continues to support past commitments to “fly, navigate and operate wherever international law permits.” In this case, it would be within the South China Sea international air and seaspace as defined by UNCLOS.