While the most senior US and Chinese representatives at the Shangri-La Dialogue both spoke of the need for a peaceful resolution of conflicts, neither state is presently willing to seek compromise as Washington attempts to defend a regional system that Beijing sees as invalid.
For the second year in a row, a US defence secretary used the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore to challenge China’s conduct in the South China Sea, and was met with rebuttals from Beijing. At the regional forum in late May, Ashton Carter stopped short of the combative language used by his predecessor in 2014, but reiterated US concerns over ‘island building’ in the region.
Claim and counter-claim
The core message of Carter’s keynote speech was that the US is ‘deeply concerned about the pace and scope of land reclamation in the South China Sea, the prospect of further militarisation, as well as the potential for these activities...to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant states’. He called for a halt to both of these activities by all claimants, but focused his accusations primarily against China.
While acknowledging that all claimants had undertaken some level of reclamation and militarisation, Beijing had, he said, gone ‘much further and much faster than any other’ during a building boom in the past 18 months. As a result, Carter accused China of being ‘out of step with both the international rules and norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific's security architecture, and the regional consensus that favours diplomacy and opposes coercion’.
Programmes of island-building help claimant states in the South China Sea both to legally underpin and to enforce their territorial claims. This approach is not new, and even the spurt in development of Chinese held maritime features is a continuation Beijing’s established policy in the region. In response to Carter’s speech, Admiral Sun Jianguo, the PLA Deputy Chief of General Staff, insisted the reclamation was not directed at rival claimants and did not affect freedom of navigation. The underlying message of his speech was that China’s maritime claims are valid, and its ‘enormous restraint’ had helped maintain regional peace and stability.
The way ahead
The Shangri-La Dialogue came less than two weeks after the US conducted a military overflight of an island claimed by China in the South China Sea for the first time. Carter provided no indication of the US' future intentions, but insisted the US would assert freedom of navigation and overflight suggesting further flights and vessels are likely to be sent into disputed territory.
Such action risks provoking some kind of response from China. A senior Chinese official recently refused to rule out China declaring an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the region, depending on ‘whether China’s air safety is under threat, and the seriousness of the threat’.
The declaration of an ADIZ would be a game-changer in the South China Sea and significantly escalate the current challenge to the regional strategic order that China’s claims and conduct in the region present. By contrast, Carter’s speech in Singapore restated the need to ‘reaffirm the guiding principles and the rules that have served this region so well’. While the most senior US and Chinese representatives at the Shangri-La Dialogue both spoke of the need for a peaceful resolution of conflicts, neither state is presently willing to seek compromise as Washington attempts to defend a regional system that Beijing sees as invalid.
Image: Aerial photo of alleged Chinese land reclamation at Mischief Reef, Spratly Islands, May 2015; Ritchie B. Tongo/AP/Press Association