China, United States Exchange Verbal Blows Over South China Sea

At a recent United Nations Security Council meeting regarding maritime security, the United States and China exchanged barbs as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called out China as an oppressive influence in the South China Sea. Even though the Sea has been highly contested by many surrounding countries, this exchange is the most recent development in the standoff between China and the United States.

Blinken argued last Monday that China is breaking agreed-upon maritime rules that were disclosed in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (U.N.C.L.O.S.) by unlawfully claiming territory and practicing aggressive behavior. Chinese Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. Dai Bing shot back, naming the U.S. as “the biggest threat to stability” in the South China Sea. Both countries have increased military activity in the region, but there have been no physical attacks yet, despite heightened animosity.

Some might say that the United States does not have a fair reason to be part of disputes in the South China Sea: Ambassador Bing contested that the U.S. “has no credibility … to act as a judge” in maritime affairs. But Secretary of State Blinken defended the U.S., insisting that it is “the responsibility of every member-state to defend the rules” of U.N.C.L.O.S. and any other pertinent maritime laws. Blinken also referenced the larger impacts of an outright conflict, asserting that there would be “serious global consequences for security and commerce” if supranational laws could be broken without repercussions and that a lack of consequences for breaking the rules “fuels greater impunity” for other countries. As both sides have valid arguments, the ultimate goal seems to be maintaining peace in the South China Sea, but it remains to be seen how this can be achieved with these hostile exchanges.

The South China Sea has been long disputed for its economic worth and historical value. Before the United States was involved in the Sea’s affairs, there have been issues regarding China’s competing claims to different areas of the ocean, in countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam. China has become more aggressive in reclaiming land that belongs to other countries under agreed-upon treaties and, as a result, has upset the stability that once reigned.

The United States, as an economic power and as an ally of some of these countries, declared its interest in the South China Sea – to the dismay of Chinese officials. As tensions between the U.S. and China worsened over time, so has the situation in the South China Sea, with China becoming bolder in increasing its military presence and targeting other countries’ vessels. Neither country seems to want to stand down. But without compromise, the South China Sea will remain contested.

This contest of claims has high stakes. If warfare breaks out and interferes with the flow of trade, millions of dollars could be lost. China and the U.S. need to be willing to set aside their pride to think about the larger picture, and if that requires modifying U.N.C.L.O.S. or drafting another maritime agreement, that should be considered. If both countries continue ramping up their military activities, these verbal barbs will be just the opening shots of a fatal conflict that won’t be easily forgiven. Therefore, China and the U.S. should be open to co-operatively work out an agreement. Exchanging insults is not providing the concrete solution for stability the South China Sea needs to be stable.

The latest adverse exchange between the U.S. and China makes ending the current impasse look like an unhopeful prospect. With China’s history in the South China Sea, the United States looking to arbitrate for the sake of peace on a larger scale, and relations between the two continuing to deteriorate, solutions are unclear. But things cannot continue as they are without reaching a breaking point. Both China and the United States must communicate with each other diplomatically to resolve the conflict in the name of peace and stability. A few well-aimed words are not worth the repercussions of open warfare.

Sabina Marty