Summitry is often seen as a way for national leaders to directly hash out disagreements and reach some accommodation. That was not the case at this year’s East Asia Summit (EAS), where leaders seemed more interested in underlining their differences than reconciling them. Not surprisingly, the South China Sea dispute was the summit’s most contentious issue. The United States took a firmer posture on the issue than it had in the past. President Barack Obama urged the disputants “to halt [land] reclamation, construction, and militarization of disputed areas.” China, which has reclaimed over 2,900 acres of land in the Spratly archipelago, bristled at what it saw as American interference. Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin said that China would continue to build military and civilian facilities on the islands, and cautioned observers from conflating the construction of Chinese “military facilities with efforts to militarize the islands and reefs.”
When China began its land reclamation, many in Southeast Asia downplayed the significance. But since then, China has expanded its construction efforts, building military-grade airstrips and port facilities. It has also sent more military forces into the area. In October alone, China deployed J-11 fighters, Type 022 fast attack craft, and an amphibious assault ship to the Paracel Islands. Adding to the region’s concerns, Liu stated that China had already demonstrated “great restraint” in the South China Sea by not seizing the rest of the disputed islands, even though it “has the right and ability to recover the islands and reefs illegally occupied by neighboring countries.” Soon after, Admiral Wu Shengli, the commander of the Chinese navy, used a similar expression to describe China’s reaction to supposed American provocations. Such developments have started to color how Southeast Asian countries view not only China, but also America’s posture in the South China Sea.
For decades, the United States has maintained a hands-off policy towards the disputes in the South China Sea. It would not take sides as long as freedom of navigation through the area was ensured. It would only encourage the disputants to peacefully resolve their conflicts. But over the last half-decade, as China has ratcheted up its activities in the South China Sea, the United States has stepped up its military presence there. By and large, China has ignored such signs of American displeasure and instead accelerated its activities.
Ultimately, in December 2014 the United States directly interjected itself into the dispute. The Department of State published a technical report that documented the inconsistencies in China’s “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea, essentially questioning the basis for China’s maritime claims. Then, the United States began to openly challenge China’s claim to a 12-nautical mile territorial limit around its man-made islands, not recognized under international law. In October, the US Navy conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation through the South China Sea, sailing an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer through the 12-nautical mile radius around Subi Reef, one of the islets occupied by China and on which it reclaimed land and built an airstrip. A few weeks later, the US Air Force flew two B-52 bombers over the area, as it did in the East China Sea after China declared an air defense identification zone over its waters in 2013. Going forward, the US military announced that it would conduct at least two freedom-of-navigation operations through the South China Sea every quarter.
A week after the EAS, the United States took yet another step. It passed new legislation to create the “South China Sea Initiative”—the first time that it specifically allocated…