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South China Sea Dispute Smolders as Trump Administration Weighs Approach

By Natalie Liu July 22, 2017

The first six months of the Trump administration saw relatively few confrontations over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea; however, analysts and officials say the lack of public conflict does not mean the issues have disappeared.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who serves on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and chairs the Subcommittee on Asian Pacific Affairs, told a conference in Washington this week that "China's militarization of the South China Sea is real" and the situation remains a "crisis."

Speaking at the Seventh Annual South China Sea Conference, Gardner described the region as a test for American leadership to deter Beijing's hegemony.

"If the South China Sea is not resolved, what is the next step?" the senator asked.

​High stakes for key region

The South China Sea extends more than 3.5 million square kilometers in the western Pacific Ocean. Countries including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, as well as Taiwan, have certain claims over its sovereignty.

In recent years, China is seen to have taken actions in an attempt to secure its claim to large areas of the South China Sea for military and economic purposes.

The United States has said that it does not take sides in the rival claims but does oppose actions to militarize the region. The U.S. has been sending military planes and ships near contested islands where China has built up military infrastructure, ignoring Beijing's assertions over what it says are Chinese airspace and territorial waters.

The reason so many nations are interested in an otherwise desolate stretch of open ocean is because it is a crossroads for international trade and is believed to have vast oil and gas reserves.

"Whoever controls the South China Sea controls East Asia, whoever controls East Asia controls the world," said Alexander Vuving, an analyst attending the conference.

Vuving, a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, compares the sea lines of communication in the South China Sea to arteries in the body. He explained to VOA that they provide a lifeline for the Asian economy and are also critical for military transportation.

Vuving believes Washington should try to halt China's rising sphere of influence, before brokering a potentially peaceful and enduring power-sharing arrangement among the stakeholders in the region.

​Robust strategic posture

Ely Ratner, a former Obama administration official who is now a senior fellow in China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggests that the Trump administration adopt a much more robust strategic posture. He warned that adopting a policy with a goal of "conflict prevention, reducing tensions" created, in his view, "a risk aversion that has led to a permissive environment for Chinese assertiveness."

Instead, Ratner proposes "a policy based on deterrence, and if deterrence fails, denial."

For this to work, he says policymakers will have to be willing to bear the inherent risks and potential instability of a more deterrence-based policy. He says factions inside the Obama administration favored communication between Washington and Beijing over confrontation.

It is not yet clear to what degree the Trump administration will continue the previous administration's approach. Bonnie Glaser, China Power Project director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. Navy is on track to log 900 ship days this year in the region, up from 700 in 2016.

Ratner, the former White House official, says the notion that China is "unstoppable, escalatory, willing to risk all" is a myth, "quite contrary to our experience over the last several years."

As if to confirm Ratner's assertion, Xue Chen, a research fellow from Shanghai's Institute for International Studies, told the conference that China's late leader, Deng Xiaoping, decades ago reached the conclusion that the South China Sea problem is intractable, that there would be "no way out," only entanglements with sovereignty disputes. Xue said Deng proposed joint development instead.

Strategically ambiguous 'Nine-Dash Line'

Xue went on to say that China has never clarified the nature or extent of what falls within the "Nine-Dash Line," referring to the demarcation line used initially by the government of the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan), then subsequently by the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC), for their claims of vast areas in the South China Sea.

Instead, Xue said, "there has always been a debate of the value of strategic ambiguity" versus a clear statement within China.

The merit of such ambiguity, Xue said, lies in allowing room for interpretation and maneuvering concerning both China's sovereign rights in the South China Sea, as well as leaving a certain amount of room "for imagination and future cooperation with other claimants."

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