U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice traveled to Beijing this week as part of U.S. efforts to lessen simmering tensions over an international court ruling against China’s claims in the South China Sea.
Rice met Monday with Chinese leader Xi Jinping but few details were disclosed about the meeting. Xinhua, the official Chinese new agency, said Xi told Rice that Beijing is willing to develop “trusting, cooperative ties” and hoped for constructive solutions to disagreements.
White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said maritime issues were discussed in the meeting between Rice and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Fan Changlong but provided no details.
Xinhua said Fan told Rice that China opposes the recent ruling in The Hague by the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration, and that Chinese forces would “continue to provide strong backing to safeguarding China’s national territorial sovereignty and security.”
Obama administration sources said Rice and the two Chinese officials repeated their official positions on the South China Sea and that little progress was made in resolving the issue.
Rice told the Chinese that states in the region should “avoid taking actions that raise tensions and could raise the risks of miscalculation” in the South China Sea, according to one U.S. official, who added the sea dispute did not come up during the meeting with Xi.
Rice, in earlier meetings, reiterated that the United States would continue to conduct military operations in sea and air according to international law and said she hopes the recent court ruling could lead to talks on the maritime dispute.
Both Fan and Yi told Rice that China rejects the recent ruling that nullified China’s claims to the Spratlys Islands and ruled in favor of Philippines.
The ostensible reason for the visit was to prepare for President Obama’s upcoming visit to China in September.
But the real reason behind Rice’s meetings in Beijing is to try and tamp down growing tensions.
U.S. intelligence agencies are closely watching for any signs of Chinese military aggression in the South China Sea and are concerned China will announce the imposition of an air defense identification zone over the strategic waterway.
The South China Sea remains a potential political and military flashpoint as a result of the court ruling against China’s expansive maritime sovereignty claims.
Reactions in both Beijing and Philippines, which brought the case to the court, have been limited and public protests in both countries so far has been minimal, according to a security report by the State Department-led Overseas Security Advisory Council.
“The situation, however, remains fluid, with long-term security implications contingent on the ability of both sides to peacefully resolve competing claims,” the July 19 report said.
The ruling nullified China’s claim to the Spratly Islands where Beijing has been building up islands in what the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, has dubbed a “Great Wall of Sand.”
China’s Foreign Ministry called the ruling “null and void” and stated that it “has no binding force.”
Taiwan, which claims one of the Spratlys as its territory, on July 13 sent a warship near the island in a show of force.
So far, the regional states do not appear ready to engage in a conflict over the islands and the ruling does not appear to “have an immediate impact on freedom of navigation or access to major shipping lanes in the region” that sees over $5 trillion annually in trade, the report said
The U.S. Navy has conducted two freedom of navigation operations in the Sea as part of efforts to challenge China’s claim to own the waterway.
“The Hague ruling is unlikely to bring a conclusive end to any of Asia’s maritime disputes,” the report concludes.
“Although Beijing has refrained from what one analyst called ‘worst-case reactions’ – the declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea, a withdrawal from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, or seizing control of a shoal in the disputed Paracel Islands – some behaviors appear to remain relatively unchanged,” the report said.
“The private sector is encouraged to track developments in the coming months for any indications of an escalation of tensions,” the report added.
One possible response could be for China to occupy additional islands or build additional facilities on contested territory.
Also possible are what the report described as “confrontations at sea (both accidental and intentional).”
The report notes that the court does not have any enforcement mechanism for the ruling and thus any compliance would be voluntary.
Another possible response would be for China to impose economic, labor or tourism sanctions on Philippines. The 2012 standoff between the two countries over the Spratly’s Scarborough Shoal prompted China to quarantine Philippine fruit, causing an estimated $30 million in losses.
Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books. Contact him on Twitter at @BillGertz
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