In a setback for China, the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague ruled last Thursday that it has jurisdiction to hear the case brought by the Philippines over disputed islands in the South China Sea. This unfavourable, albeit expected, ruling for China coincidentally took place a few days after Washington sent a guided-missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, to patrol within 12 nautical miles of the Mischief and Subi reefs, which have been central to China’s controversial reclamation activities in the South China Sea. How should we expect the United States and China to respond to these developments?
Apart from the hype in the Chinese media, China’s official responses to the USS Lassen incident thus far have been fairly muted, and largely limited to diplomatic protests. The US and Chinese navy chiefs held talks almost immediately after the incident. Both sides agreed to maintain dialogue and continue with high-level bilateral visits and port calls as scheduled. Of note, Commander of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, is expected to visit China this week, and he will likely work towards further reducing tensions between China and the US.
These are all positive and mature gestures from the US and China, but the South China Sea is rapidly evolving into a big power game. With many other policy priorities, neither the US nor China will allow the South China Sea issue to jeopardise overall bilateral relations. Without a doubt, the US must assure its allies in this region and also continue to assert its freedom of navigation rights in order to avoid giving China tacit consent to changing international norms. China is also certainly unhappy about the US’ actions, which it perceives as targeted at China, especially since the USS Lassen incident came so shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the US. Nonetheless, both sides are keen to not let this issue blow up. What we see, therefore, are the US and China walking a very fine line, and engaging in diplomatic signalling, mixed with friendly gestures to manage the situation.