Beijing's slow but belligerent invasion of the South China Sea has created Cold War conditions in the sub-tropical zone.
For diplomats, the question of the moment is this: Can we craft a political accommodation that can keep the peace while ensuring sovereign territorial rights?
China's claims in the South China Sea encroach on the territorial sovereignty of several Southeast Asian states. Its claims infringe on freedom of the navigation in a sea space freighters transit carrying cargoes worth $4 to $5 trillion a year. This brings the U.S., Japan and Australia into the confrontation. Another emerging Asian maritime power, India, is also concerned.
For almost three decades China has pursued a South China Sea expansionist strategy that literally relies on manufacturing islets in what was open sea or maritime territory within the Exclusive Economic Zones of Vietnam and the Philippines.
Here's how Beijing's slow invasion proceeds. Chinese construction barges anchor over a South China Sea reef or "sea feature" and begin pouring concrete. China, confident in its status as the regional super-power, ignores any squawks from the neighbors. Eventually a man-made islet appears, which Beijing then declares to be as Chinese as Shanghai. Often Beijing adds an explosive cap to the island -- anti-aircraft weaponry and an air base capable of handling high-performance combat aircraft.
China supports its construction ploy with muscular diplomacy verging on political and economic bullying. The intimidation program includes maps touting the "nine dash line," a u-shaped boundary ostensibly demarcating Chinese claims to the region. This boundary dips south for hundreds of kilometers from China's southern coast culminating near the island of Borneo. Beijing's "nine dash line" claim is ludicrous, ahistorical and, under the magnifying glass, a bit vague. But no matter. The claim puts powerful China in direct conflict with five far weaker neighbors: Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Moreover, Chinese rhetoric and actions suggest that Beijing intends to enforce its claim to every island and sea feature within the "nine dash line."
In response to Beijing's infringement on their maritime territories, Vietnam and the Philippines are beefing up their military forces. Both Hanoi and Manila have expressed a willingness to resist China militarily. Oil-rich Brunei has a long-term defense relationship with Great Britain, similar to the U.S.-Philippines relationship. Britain recently said that next year a Royal Navy warship will deploy in the region. British relations with Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore play a role in the Royal Navy's plans.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is once again conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations in the area. A FONOP is a combined military and diplomatic operation demonstrating U.S. opposition to maritime territorial claims that intrude on recognized international shipping lanes. When executing a FONOP, a U.S. warship enters a maritime zone that the U.S. contends is open to free transit, but another nation claims to control.
When a Navy warship passes one of China's manufactured islets, Beijing howls. Washington ignores the howls. The U.S. is a global super power that China cannot bully. On the other hand, the U.S. cannot force China to do its will. But it's obvious that a shooting war in the region could lead to a China-U.S. confrontation.
Fortunately the U.S., Australia and Japan are behaving like adults and this week they urged China and ASEAN to create a "South China Sea code of conduct" defining rules for resolving disputes that are "legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with international law." The three nations also emphasized their "strong opposition to coercive unilateral actions," which is a direct slap at Beijing.
Will China agree to it? China can ill-afford a trade war with the U.S., Japan and Europe. It appears the deal being offered does not demand China withdraw from its manufactured islets. The diplomatic offer amounts to a "semi-win-win" for everyone involved. Beijing would be wise to take it.