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Why the U.S. Navy is navigating the South China Sea

What do recent U.S. naval forays in the South China Sea -- including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s visit aboard an aircraft carrier -- mean for tensions with China over the disputed waters? Hari Sreenivasan speaks to Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Joining me now to help us understand the United States' recent activity in the South China Sea and what it means is Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

    So, first, how big a deal is this, if Ash Carter gets on a very nice ship and decides to take a cruise in territorially disputed waters?

    BONNIE GLASER, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, Secretary Carter has done this previously, when he attended the Shangri-La dialogue in June of this year.

    He was on a P-8 surveillance aircraft flying over the Malacca Straits. So it's not unusual for the United States secretary of defense to be on a military platform out in the South China Sea demonstrating to the region that the United States has an abiding interest in peace and stability in the region.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is it a provocative act to be in this specific place at this time?

  • BONNIE GLASER:

    Undoubtedly, the Chinese see it as a provocative act, but I think that the other nations in the regions do not.

    I think if you look at Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, the other claimants, they are very happy to see the United States' flag shown in the region. They supported the United States exercising freedom of navigation around what is called Subi Reef, which is the elevation, the low-tide elevation that the USS Lassen, a destroyer, conducted a freedom of navigation operation in just a few days ago.

    So, this is something that the region supports generally.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The freedom of navigation idea, is it a right that sort of use it or lose it? If you don't use it, is that kind of what we're stressing here by having carrier groups go through?

  • BONNIE GLASER:

    The United States has been doing this of course for centuries. And since 1979, it has had a freedom of navigation program.

    And, in fact, this is the seventh what we call FONOP that has been conducted since 2011 in the South China Sea. And, yes, I think if the Navy does not sail through, and not just the U.S. Navy, but Australia navy, Japan's navy doesn't sail through waters that are high seas, that they are not territorial seas of other countries, even in territorial seas, we can sail through making innocent passage.

    And, in fact, that is really what we did in this case. We sailed through a territorial sea of China's Subi Reef. So, yes, you have to exercise it or other countries may claim it and may try to exclude other navies.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Speaking of other countries and their claims, what have the other countries in the region that have vested interests in these waters, what have they been doing, besides just China and the United States that get kind of pinned in this conversation?

  • BONNIE GLASER:

    Well, the Philippines is trying to enhance its capability to conduct what we call better maritime domain awareness, to know what's going on inside its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

    And in fact Japan and the United States has been providing some capability. The same is true with Vietnam. And the thinking here is that if other claimants know what's going on inside their waters, that the Chinese will be less apt to use coercion against them.

    Diplomatically, there's also some steps being taken. The Philippines has taken a very important case to the court under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea, and there was just an announcement today that the merits of that case will be heard at the end of November. The court has already found jurisdiction on a number of the counts.

    So, next year, there is going to be likely a ruling that will come down and that will also have implications for the behavior of China and other countries going forward.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now, does China respect the decision of that court?

  • BONNIE GLASER:

    China has already said that this court doesn't have jurisdiction and it has said that its finding will be null and void, it will reject it.

    But I do think that China cares about its international reputation, and so there is a possibility that China will reconsider that as we go forward. I hope other countries will impose some more costs on China, particularly in terms of its coercive strategy in the region, so that we can convince the Chinese that they're playing at an ineffective game.

    They should have good relations with their neighbors, rather than exert their sovereignty claims over these rocks and reefs in the South China Sea that I think are less important to Chinese interests over the long run.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How different have China's actions been compared to other people trying to stake a claim? We had video of newly developed airstrips on some of these islands and even military armaments that are really kind of ramping up.

  • BONNIE GLASER:

    The Chinese do see themselves as playing catchup, because every other claimant in the South China Sea, with the exception of Brunei, has an airstrip.

    They have all conducted a small amount of land reclamation. That is taking a land feature and making it a little bit bigger. The Chinese went in there and dredged an enormous amount of sand and built these very large artificial islands.

    So now the Chinese occupy the largest land feature, which is three times larger than the largest natural-produced island in the area. The Chinese, the scope of what they have done, and now they will have four airstrips in the South China Sea. Their capability really outstrips every other claimant.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, thanks so much for joining us.

  • BONNIE GLASER:

    Thank you.

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