Neither the White House nor the Chinese government have released the details of what transpired during the March 31st summit meeting between President Barack Obama and Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping. Because the talks in Washington covered a range of sensitive national security issues, including cyber-warfare, North Korea’s nuclear program, the possible deployment of U.S. antiballistic missiles to South Korea, and the ongoing crisis in the South China Sea, it will, in all probability, be decades before the actual transcripts of the meeting will be released to the public. So how are we to know whether the talks advanced the cause of peace in East Asia and the South China Sea? All we have to go on at this moment are the “official” Chinese and American versions of the talks. And although those versions are rather vague, they do provide enough information to conclude that the talks failed, and failed in a big way, to lessen tensions between the two great powers over control of the South China Sea.
According to China’s official Xinhua News Agency, “Xi vowed that his country will not accept any act under the disguise of freedom of navigation that violates its sovereignty and damages its security interests.” Essentially, Xi said that China does not accept the U.S.’s legal right to conduct freedom of navigation exercises or military overflights in the waters around or skies above its claimed territories within the South China Sea. On the other hand, the U.S. insists it will continue to conduct such military maneuvers, irrespective of Chinese bellicosity. If China continues to oppose the U.S.’s right to conduct freedom of navigation exercises and overflights, there is a high probability that at some future date Chinese and American air and naval forces will clash in the South China Sea, probably near Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, or Scarborough Shoal.
The Xinhua News Agency also reported that Xi Jinping told Obama that China “…is resolute both in defending its sovereignty and related rights in [the] South China Sea…and sticks to the principle that the disputes should be settled in a peaceful way by relevant claimants through direct consultations and negotiations.” In other words, China has no intention of resolving the disputes roiling the South China Sea through the courts. China wants to solve the various territorial claims through direct talks with the other claimants. Why does China want to pursue this course? Because in all likelihood, China’s claims in the South China Sea will be rejected by an objective third-party. However, in one-on-one talks, China can bully its weaker neighbors, such as the Philippines, into making concessions. Xi has rejected international arbitration and the best chance of peacefully resolving the South China Sea crisis.
Finally, Xi informed the President, “Beijing hopes that the United States will abide by its commitment to not taking sides on the sovereignty and territorial rows in [the] South China Sea….” Xi wants the Americans to stay out of the various disputes. Again, this is easy to explain. If the Americans quit insisting on an adherence to international law and international arbitration, China will get its way in the region.
America cannot allow China to dominate the South China Sea. A Chinese salient in the South China Sea will threaten the U.S.’s entire defensive posture in the far western Pacific; it’ll also weaken the U.S.’s system of alliances with countries such as Australia, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. And this, ultimately, is why the stakes are so high for the United States in the area; it’s also why the words of Xi Jinping on March 31st in Washington took the U.S. and China one step closer to war.
Update: A day after the failed summit between Chairman Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama, a credible source revealed that the U.S. Seventh Fleet plans on conducting a freedom of navigation exercise near one of the Chinese positions in the South China Sea. Sometime in early April, a U.S. Navy warship, or warships, will enter the seas within twelve miles of a Chinese-claimed atoll, possibly Mischief Reef. No one knows how the Chinese will respond to this planned U.S. action; but there exists the very real possibility that Chairman Jinping will not allow the U.S.’s freedom of navigation exercise to pass without incident since his personal credibility, and the credibility of China’s strategy of brinkmanship in the region, will be severely tested by the U.S. naval manuever.