U.S. Takes A Pass — For Now — On China Sea Disputes

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Chinese surveillance ships stand vigil in the Scarborough Shoal, about 190 miles off the Philippine coast.

TOKYO – The territorial disputes in the South China Seas are over, China has won, and the U.S. couldn’t care less. But that’s not necessarily bad.

While arguments over who owns which reefs, rocks and lagoons in the South China Sea will likely drag on awhile, the U.S. is saving its powder for a more important fight: keeping vital shipping lanes free from potential interference.

A months-long standoff over a remote reef system claimed by both China and the Philippines all but ended this weekend when the Obama administration signaled it would not intervene.  That means Chinese patrol boats, which in April chased a Philippines’ warship from the Scarborough Shoal, will remain there as long they want. So, too, will Chinese fishing and commercial exploration ships.

That’s bad news for the neighbors. China has claimed virtually all of the South China Sea as its own, along with potentially huge deposits of oil, gas and other natural resources. The region includes the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal and other scattered islets and shallows variously claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and Brunei.  If the U.S. won’t wade in on behalf of the Philippines, with which it shares a 60-year-old mutual defense treaty, then it sure won’t do so for anybody else. Without U.S. or other outside help, those countries will have little choice but to accept the Chinese claims, and cut whatever joint-development deals they can.

Yes, that could embolden China to make additional new demands (more on that later), but the bigger worry is whether China will use its growing air and sea power to threaten movement through the region. More than half the world’s commercial shipping passes through the South China Sea, including nearly all Mideast oil bound for Japan, South Korea, China and Southeast Asia. Just the threat of interrupting that flow could give China serious leverage in any dispute.

“The U.S. is not going to send the 7th Fleet to resolve problems with fish or coral in the South China Sea, because that is not the vital interest of the United States,” says Donald Weatherbee, fellow at the University of South Carolina’s Walker Institute of International Studies.  “The vital American national interest is in freedom of navigation. (So far), China has done nothing to suggest that they are going to try to close off those waters to transit by vessels of the United States, Japan, Korea, or you name it. The minute the Chinese confronts us in that way, then it’s no longer a question of the Philippines or Indonesian national interest, it becomes a question of American national interests.”

But while Obama won’t referee competing territorial claims (urging a peaceful, diplomatic resolution — for what that’s worth), the Scarborough Shoal drama shows that such disputes won’t be cost-free for China. After meeting with Philippines President Benigno Aquino III in Washington on Friday, Obama said the U.S. will continue to build up its forces in the region, and will help allies like the Philippines do the same.

So far, the U.S. and Philippines have agreed to open the former Clark Air Base and Subic Bay naval facilities for U.S. troop rotations, port visits and training exercises; to donate two more retired U.S. Coast Guard cutters to the Philippines navy; and send radar and ocean-surveillance equipment to keep an eye on you-know-who. Although Clark and Subic were closed in the early ‘90s, the U.S. has kept about 600 Special Forces soldiers at a Philippines’ army base in the southern part of the country for nearly a decade.

All this is part of the “re-balancing” of U.S. forces in the region. Marines are moving to Australia. The U.S. and Japan are planning joint training bases in the Marianas. Spanking-new littoral combat ships will operate out of Singapore. The U.S. insists this is unrelated to China, but of course it’s completely related.

“China is going to view this as another example of containment, no matter what the U.S. calls it,” says Jeffrey Hornung, an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

Meanwhile, China hasn’t made any friends with its handling of the Scarborough dispute. In addition to charging in with armed patrol boats and surveillance planes, it called off the visits of thousands of Chinese tourists to the Philippines, blocked imports of tens of millions of dollars of Philippines bananas, and even cancelled the highly-anticipated visit of China’s national basketball team (in poor but basketball-mad Philippines, it’s hard to know which was the harsher response).

The dispute is sure to strengthen the hand of hawks in nearby Japan, which has a China problem in its own waters.  China has made strident claims to ownership of the Senkaku Islands, which it calls the Daioyu islands, ever since a Chinese fishing vessel was seized near the islands after colliding with a Japanese coast guard cutter in 2010. Japan released the ship and crew after China responded by embargoing shipments of rare earth materials, cancelling tourist trips to Japan and arresting a handful of Japanese businessmen on spying charges. (Japan later agreed to give 10 patrol ships to the Philippines, but says that’s unrelated.)

For its part, China has played down the dispute with Japan in recent months, and has promised that it won’t interfere with anyone’s navigation rights in the South China Sea. And it would seem foolish even to try. For all its double-digit defense spending, China is still many years away from being able to challenge U.S. military power, and no doubt knows that. Nor would it seem to have much to gain; China’s economy is thoroughly dependent on sea-going trade and cutting off any shipping would mean cutting off its own, as well.

So the U.S. is telling China it can take all the fish and oil it can grab – but don’t try to stop any ships along the way.