Home » Highlights » Professor Joseph Nye: the U.S should take a clear position on keeping an open environment by U.S laws and entreaties and encourages joint exploitation of resources regard to the South China Sea

Professor Joseph Nye: the U.S should take a clear position on keeping an open environment by U.S laws and entreaties and encourages joint exploitation of resources regard to the South China Sea

The U.S have taken no position on the sovereignty issues in the South China Sea, but it strongly agrees that the UN laws should be used to resolve the disputes and develop code of conduct. Managing the U.S and China relation is one of the crucial questions for world peace in the next half century and there is no “necessary conflicts” between them, as Professor Joseph Nye stated in his speech in the Boston Global Forum’s conference on managing the peace and security in the South China Sea, which was held on April 20, 2015 at Harvard Faculty Club.


Professor Joseph Nye, member of Boston Global Forum’s Board of Thinkers, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor was co-moderator in the BGF conference in April 20, 2015.

He also stressed that, the U.S should stand still on the sovereignty issues in the South China Sea, but “take a clear position on keeping an open environment by U.S laws and entreaties and encourages joint exploitation of resources.

Read his full transcript of speech below.

Professor Joseph S. Nye Transcript

Boston Global Forum Conference, April 20th 2015

 “It’s worth noticing that the headlines in the NY Times last week were part of what we are talking about. There was a picture on the front page of the  Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly  islands , and the new runway that China is building, which is supposedly going to be 2 mile long, capable of accommodating any kind of military aircraft. This is a reef about 1000 miles South of Hainan. So there is a high degree of concern, some people say that once the Chinese have built the airfield on Fiery Cross Reef, they will then declare an Air Defense Identification Zone, similar to what they declared in the East China Sea. This is part of the plan to close off the South China Sea. US should be careful not to be too alarm. We’ve been through this before in 1995, there was a great deal of alarm about the fact that China is constructing structures on Mischief Reef, which is about a hundred miles from Fiery Cross Reef and also Spratly islands. At that time, the U.S stated that we would take no position as a country on the sovereignty issues in the South China Sea because they are far too complex and there are too many conflicting claims, not just from China but also from other Asian countries. The US had no position on the sovereignty, but it did take a strong position on the idea that the seas should be governed by the UN laws, which the U.S regards as the international law. Also we urge the parties involved to find peaceful ways to resolve the disputes and develop codes of conduct. That has been the American position since then. The question is should this position change. Are we seeing something we should lead to a difference, where the Americans take a tougher position in the South China Sea?

I think it helps to put this into a broader context of the US and China relations.  I think managing US and China relation in the next half century or so is one of the crucial questions for world peace. As I argue in my new book: “Is the American century over?” I think we can manage that relationship. I don’t see necessary conflicts between the US and China. And we have to be careful not to overreact. On the other hand we have to make sure that our interests and our allies are protected. I should also note that the South China Sea is different from the East China Sea. In the East China Sea, where there is dispute between China and Japan over Chinese Diaoyu Islands and Japanese Senkaku Islands. We have a very clear position which is the Senkaku Islands are in the US-Japan security treaty. They are covered by the treaty, and the President has said this himself. So in the East China Sea there is no question. When the China declare the Air Defense Identification Zone in East China Sea, one of the first things the United States did was to show that we did not recognize that. So East China Sea is treated separately.

In South China Sea, we do not have that same alliance relation. There is no alliance with the Philippines. And the question of how much the United States should be involved in the details of various disputes is the theme debated in Washington now. There are a number of proposals of what the US policy should be, whether we should depart from the policy in 1995. One interesting proposal is made by Charles Freeman. Freeman points out that if we look at the Spratly Islands, there are 44 features, rock, shoals, and so forth, which are occupied. And that in fact is all the occupation. The number of features in the sea could be occupied by the states is divided so that everybody gets a piece. This argument is that we all have a standstill instead of to solve all this out by some sort of overall formula. To say the standstill under international law will keep this situation without change.

Now interestingly, if we keep that position, guess who would get the most out of it? Vietnam, which occupies 25 of these features, just in the Spratly Islands. Second is the Philippines, which occupies 8. Third is China which occupies 7. Fourth is Malaysia which occupies 3 and fifth is Taiwan which occupies 1. One of the interesting questions about this proposal is would China agree through it? Because it clearly means that other states also get into the occupation, but it is an interesting proposal because instead of trying to sort out all these issues, you can say let the occupation spread where it is now and perhaps you will have the incentive for joint exploitation of resources, or if you are finding ways to negotiate or compromise over the conflict.

The second proposal is made by Bonnie Glaser at Center for Teaching International Relations Studies, which takes slightly tougher position. Bonnie recommends that China has not developing code of conflict with the Asian countries which she regards or the Asian countries regard as unsatisfactory, let the Asian countries develop their own code of conflict and ways to resolve these issues, and let that China to sign on the form, and put ASEAN  in a higher position.

The second thing she recommends is that U.S should help Philippines and Vietnam to improve their police capacity, particularly strengthen their coast office, as recently U.S’ announced programs could actually do help those countries in the region. This is important as you remember that China installed an oil drill in Paracel Island, leading to the seventy days of conflict between China and Vietnam. Most of this battle of ships, eventually it changed where they were ending China’s riot on land in Vietnam; the China realized that they had to find some way to make sure that they do not ruin their relationship with Vietnam overall.

The third thing that Bonnie recommends in her paper is that we state in advance that we will not recognize, so try to deter China from announcing those.

And the forth she recommends is to develop the military relationships between U.S and China, which deals with incidences of sea but led to this agreement on how to reduce air conflict. These principles like these will help solve the problem that we hope to prevent from escalating.

Now the question is how do we get to do this? The Freeman principle, essentially a standstill with the American power and position they have had since 1995, which were reiterated by Hilary Clinton in Hanoi in 2010, we would say everybody stay still and start developing principles for joint exploitation of resources. One problem is that the China is not standing still with building in the Paracel Islands. There is a facetious but understandable remark that China is building a Great Wall of Sand in the South China Sea. If China has stopped, it would be feasible, but since China hasn’t stopped construction, there is difficulty to reach proposal. On the other hand, if you take Bonnie’s proposal, the question is how much the United States wants some of these issues. From a historical point of view, the claims are very ambiguous. Some of the claims are clear, but some are very confusing. The U.S should be careful not to get into a position where we have so much to do with China that we end up fighting over some acres. Are we really willing to get into a situation like this? South China Sea, unlike East China Sea is not clear, and we should not treat South China Sea the same as East China Sea and wind up elaborate cost between U.S and China. I think the 1995 position is still correct, that we should not take position on the sovereignty of various features of the sea, but take a clear position on keeping an open environment by U.S laws and entreaties and encourage jointexploitation of resources. 

So that’s my summation of where we are standing now.”