With trillions in goods moving through the South China Sea annually, it’s arguably the most important shipping lane on the planet, says Vikram Singh. While China says that it wants to keep the sea free and open for trade, most worryingly for the United States, Beijing has claimed it can deny access to military vessels, challenging the U.S.’ ability to maintain a balance of power in the region.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: We've been watching very closely what has been taking place in China. There are a lot of different aspects to this story. One is that we've got trade that is complication. There's also what we've been watching take place in the South China Sea. The President has been talking about this issue on and off over the last several weeks.

In addition to that, we've been talking about the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who has been meeting with his counterparts overseas to talk a little bit about military... There was an incident ... Not an incident, but there was a moment when a U.S. ship was not too far from Taiwan, in the Taiwan Straits. That's not something the Chinese like. We want to put some perspective on this and get a better sense of where we are on this.

Vikram Singh is a United States Institute of Peace senior advisor, and he's Tweeting @VJS_Policy and joins us. Vikram Singh, welcome to P.O.T.U.S. Thank you for being here.

Vikram Singh: Hey, thanks. I'm glad to join you.

Tim Farley: Let's talk a little bit, first of all, about what the idea behind the visit was, the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, meeting with his Chinese counterpart. What is that intended to do?

Vikram Singh: He met at a ... There was a summit of ASEAN Defense Ministers, that’s the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and Secretary of Defense Mattis and his Chinese counterpart were both at that meeting, and they had a meeting on the sidelines there. This was seen as a good step in that a recent visit plan by Mattis to Beijing was actually canceled. So, they spent 90 minutes or so together on the sidelines of this meeting, and what we're hearing is that it was probably a pretty frank and pretty tough conversation. I don't think that our differences over this part of the world are going to abate any time soon, but it's good that the two sides are engaged.

Tim Farley: China has — not as loudly as other countries — been very imperialistic in its territorial claims in the South China Sea. How do we see those manifesting itself aside from the fact that they're trying to manufacture islands?

Vikram Singh: The fact is that they have profoundly changed in the last, say, five years the balance, the military balance of power in the South China Sea. The South China Sea is disputed among many nations. It's several archipelagos of islands, and from the Vietnamese to the Taiwanese to the Malaysians, many countries have contested claims among these islands and in the South China Sea. China claims 90% of the South China Sea, which is a position that is rejected by every other country in the region and by the United States, and the one time it's been tested was when the Philippines took the Chinese to an international tribunal, The Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, to contest their claim to a particular feature, the Scarborough Shoal. The Chinese lost that case. The Chinese claims were rejected the one time when they'd been tested in an international tribunal, and the Chinese have basically ignored that.

They have proceeded to highly militarize the entire area. There are now three airfields built on these tiny, little islands in the South China Sea that could host any Chinese military aircraft. 

Tim Farley: I was surprised to note, and I knew that commerce was a part of the reason why this is of strategic importance, but I didn't realize how much actually passes through the South China Sea: 3.4 trillion dollars’ worth of ships, etc., that go through there.

Vikram Singh: Yeah. I think it's safe to say that the South China Sea is the most important shipping lane on the planet. Whether it's energy, whether it's goods, whether it's imports and exports going to and from Japan, to and from China, it all flows through the South China Sea. Basically, the notion that freedom of navigation through the South China Sea could be compromised is what spurs the United States, other regional powers, and China to want to have the ability to project power into that region. 

The Strait of Malacca, for example, is a choke point sort of near Singapore and India and Indonesia where a huge amount of global energy flow is sailing through this tiny strait, which could easily be choked off at some point with very few alternatives. 

So it's an extremely strategic region. All countries, including China, have an interest in it staying free and open, but they also want to hedge. They want to be in a position to have some control if there was ever a conflict in the region.

Tim Farley: Vikram Singh with us, United States Institute of Peace, senior advisor. Talk about how whether or not this conversation, the back and forth between the U.S. and China over tariffs is affecting any discussions on the South China Sea and Chinese attempts to be more aggressive in territorial claims there.

Vikram Singh: Historically, we've generally treated military and geopolitical issues, geo-strategic issues and trade issues in separate channels. I expect that most of those discussions are in separate channels now, but the fact that these trade tensions with China are escalating and don't show any sign of being resolved quickly, there haven't been any constructive steps in talks. We look like we're headed towards yet another round of tariffs on Chinese goods imposed by the United States. That also could offer some leverage on the Chinese when it comes to geo-strategic issues, like what's happening in the South China Sea.

What makes the South China Sea the most worrying for the United States is that the Chinese, they claim that they don't have any intention of limiting the passage of goods through the area, free passage of ships, but they also claim that they can deny access to, say, military vessels transiting the area, and they're also claiming, making territorial claims based on building artificial islands, which, under international law, don't give a state any additional territory. 

The United States is trying to push its way through. If the only tool is this sort of back and forth of we sail a ship and you fly out and buzz the ship and complain about it, if that's the only tool, it doesn't seem like there's not much more pressure to apply, but if you started to say, "We could make some more concessions on the trade front, if you guys would cool it on the militarization of the South China Sea,” you could see a different angle opening up.

I do not know that that is part of the game plan on the part of the United States.

Tim Farley: I have to wrap this up, but I'm curious. I had a guest the other day who says that a lot of what China is doing is the continuation of the evolution of a grand strategy that started under Deng Xiaoping, which is for world domination through commerce and whatever it takes to make sure that they control as much commerce as possible. What's your take on that?

Vikram Singh: I think wanting to control as much commerce as possible, wanting to grow, wanting to exert their power and influence as a world power is pretty natural and to be expected. Whether the intention behind it is world dominance, I think is unknowable, and that's one of the reasons that other countries want to be able to balance China. You can't know the intent of another leader, and so you balance out to hedge against their potential ill intent, and, right now, what they've done is created a situation where all of their neighbors are basically, to one degree or another, at the mercy of the Chinese because they are absolutely militarily dominant in that area unless the United States is in the picture. Anything they can do that doesn't provoke the United States into participating, their neighbors have no ability to resist at this point. 

Tim Farley: Vikram Singh, thank you for joining us on P.O.T.U.S. today.

Vikram Singh: Thanks.

Tim Farley: Vikram Singh is the United States Institute of Peace senior advisor discussing the South China Sea international developments. He is tweeting @VJS_Policy

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