Experts say maritime territorial disputes over parts of the South China Sea are unlikely to lead to military conflict, after a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart in Washington in September.
Tensions in the sea have risen in recent years as China looks to cement its claims with a program of island-building. The United States has sought to meet Chinese expansionism with its own increased presence in the Southeast Asian region. Just this week the US Navy sent one of its destroyers within waters claimed by China in a so-called freedom of navigation operation that has angered China.
But observers say that the deep ties between the two countries’ economies make full-scale military aggression unlikely.
Pek Koon Heng-Blackburn, director of the ASEAN Studies Center at American University, said mutual economic dependence was an important factor, especially since the United States has increased its trade ties with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Regional countries are counter claimants to China in the South China Sea, and ASEAN members Vietnam and the Philippines have been increasingly vocal about the issue at regional forums. The United States has stepped up both military and economic ties with those countries.
“I think it is too big of a risk for China to provoke a military confrontation,” she said, explaining that international supply chains mean that ASEAN nations are a source of intermediate goods that are then finished in China before being exported elsewhere, including to the United States.
“Nobody wants a military confrontation in the South China Sea, because China also needs to work with ASEAN countries. And the ‘U.S. rebalance’ has illustrated ASEAN’s importance to the U.S., and the U.S. has to work through ASEAN to manage China.”
The shipping lanes of the South China Sea are estimated to handle about 30 percent of all the world’s trade. The United States has been emphasizing the importance of freedom of navigation, fearing that China’s efforts to expand its territory could eventually become a barrier to trade.
Following his September 25 meeting at the White House with Chinese President Xi Jingping, U.S. President Barack Obama said the two leaders had “candid discussions” on the issue of the South China Sea, as well as the East China Sea, where China also has a tense territorial dispute with U.S.-ally Japan.
“I indicated that the United States will continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law allows,” Obama said.
“I conveyed to President Xi our significant concerns over land reclamation, construction and the militarization of disputed areas, which makes it harder for countries in the region to resolve disagreements peacefully. And I encouraged a resolution between claimants in these area.
“We are not a claimant; we just want to make sure that the rules of the road are upheld.”
Xi also talked about the “common interests” of the United States and China on the issue, and insisted that China supports freedom of navigation.
But Chinese officials have in the past baulked at discussing disputes on the South China Sea at multilateral forums like ASEAN, and China rejects U.S. involvement in what it sees as bilateral disputes.
“We both support peace and stability of the South China Sea,” the Chinese president said, adding that: “The countries directly involved should address their dispute through negotiation, consultation and in peaceful means.”
Observers hope that the benefits of trade through the South China Sea will provide enough an incentive to stave off conflict.
Justin Chock, a former researcher at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C., told VOA Khmer that freedom of navigation would continue to be the U.S. government’s driving principle on the issue. But even without an outbreak of hostilities, trade could be hampered, he suggested.
“I think the bigger issue at stake here is not necessarily the disputes themselves but rather: Will the world still be able to take advantage of the South China Sea and be able to use it for the purpose of trade, for the purpose of peaceful relations, for that freedom of navigation that everyone is able to use it for?” Chock said.