Written by Muhammad Faiz Aziz.

The United States has announced that it is considering sending aircraft and warships to patrol the South China Sea to challenge China’s move in building artificial islands fit for aircraft runways in the disputed waters.

The South China Sea, a historical global trade route believed to be rich in oil and gas, is bordered by the shores of countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia as well as China.

In 1948, China had claimed to own over 80% of the South China Sea, including no-man’s-land Spratly Islands and waters that are within the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam. Under the Law of the Sea, countries can have exclusive economic rights over waters within 200 nautical miles from their coastlines. China’s one-sided claim of waters enclosed in what it calls the Nine-Dash-Line has no international legal standing.

However, in recent years, China has become increasingly aggressive in its ownership claim to the Spratly Islands. Last year, it towed a deep-sea oil rig to 120 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast, causing tension between the two countries. This year, China is creating artificial islands in waters claimed by the Philippines.

Balancing power

What would happen if the US sent its warships to the region?

Tension in the South China Sea will escalate intensely if the US sends vessels to patrol the area. The Philippines have also announced plans to build a naval base opposite the disputed Spratly Islands.

However, these developments are inevitable in the face of China’s action. Had it not constructed artificial islands in the Spratlys and respected the 2002 Declaration of Conduct, the US may not have been considering sending its military to the area.

In 2002, 10 Southeast Asian countries that are grouped together in ASEAN, along with China, signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They agreed that territorial and jurisdictional disputes shall be resolved by peaceful means, without using threat or force.

By reclaiming land in the waters of the Spratly Islands, China breached the agreement – especially the point that parties should exercise self-restraint and not take actions that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.

If the US decides to send its warships, it will help other nations counterbalance China’s military might in the area, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, smaller countries whose military power is weaker than China’s.

US patrols will also ensure freedom and security of navigation. Many international ships go through the Spratly Islands in transit. Some 40% of world trade goes through this route. If China occupies the islands, it can control this important trade route, allowing it to inspect international ships that pass. The US presence may prevent this from happening.

Re-establishing US influence in Asia-Pacific

Another reason for the US to be involved in the South China Sea dispute is to secure its influence over the region. America’s power has long been felt in Southeast Asia, especially since the Vietnam war and the fall of communism in Indonesia in 1965-1966. But with China’s economic and military rise, it has begun to challenge the US sphere of influence, especially in this region where it neighbours smaller and weaker countries.

In terms of economic influence, China is backing the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is seen as competition for the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. In 2013, China has invested around US$8.6 billion. The US invested around US$3.7 billion and Australia around US$2 billion.

US dependant?

With America’s plan, will the region’s preference to be independent from foreign influence be compromised?

Not necessarily as long as the sending of warships and aircraft is temporary. China’s bullying of smaller ASEAN countries warrants urgent action to pressure it to behave. What is at stake is not only the interests of smaller ASEAN countries, but also international trade.

Indonesia, the largest country in ASEAN and a neutral player in the dispute as China does not claim Indonesia’s part of the South China Sea, could play a part in pushing for a peaceful resolution.

But it is not clear what role Indonesia and ASEAN as an organisation are taking in resolving the conflict. If Indonesia does not want ASEAN to be dependent on the US on this issue, it should take a more pro-active role.

As a middle power, Indonesia should push claimant countries to finalise the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.

But this is not enough. As an agreement, the new Code of Conduct may end up like the 2002 Declaration of Conduct. Therefore, Indonesia should encourage all claimant countries to resolve disputes through the forum of an international court of arbitration such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), or the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA).

Indonesia should also encourage the cessation of all construction and occupation activities on the disputed islands until the dispute is resolved.

Muhammad Faiz Aziz is a Researcher at the Indonesian Center for Law and Policy Studies (PSHK). This article first appeared on The Conversation online publication and can be found here. Image credit: CC by U.S. Navy/Flickr