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Prelude to war with China?

by

Special To The Japan Times

The South China Sea contretemps has taken a decided turn for the worse. The United States has upped the ante in its contest of wills with China by deploying an aircraft carrier strike group to the South China Sea. This came on the heels of a warning from U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter of “specific consequences” for China’s continued “aggressive” actions in the Sea.

The strike group was preceded by U.S. “freedom of navigation operations” using guided missile destroyers and overflights by nuclear-capable B-52 bombers. Such shows of force near a rival’s claimed territory invite a response and increase the risk of a military clash that could spin out of control. Indeed, this projection of one of the most prominent symbols of American power changes the nature and prognosis of the “game.” The situation has now reached a critical level that cannot be ignored by Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

How did it get to this point and how can the two avoid or postpone the seeming inevitable — or does the U.S. even want to do so? The context is important. The U.S. “rebalancing” to Asia has come face to face with China’s desire to control its near-shore waters. Indeed the two have converging strategic trajectories. Domination of command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems (C4 ISR) in and over China’s near-shore waters is critical for both. Indeed, this is where their national security interests collide. This collision has produced a series of international incidents in which China has challenged U.S. ISR vessels and aircraft like the EP-3 (2001), the Impeccable (2009), the Cowpens (2013) and P-8A Poseidons (2014 and 2015).

Politically, the U.S. and China also have competing goals. Simply put, the U.S. is unwilling to yield sufficient political (or military) space to satisfy China’s ambitions. Apparently this fundamental dichotomy cannot be changed. Moreover, the recent U.S. shows of force indicate that the U.S.-China relationship, particularly the military relationship, is rapidly headed south. This is despite denials and upbeat rhetoric about “routine operations,” increased U.S. Navy port visits to China and cooperative bilateral agreements on communications and activities. Not only does China’s leadership see through this smokescreen, but most astute observers do as well.

The basic problem is that China is not behaving according to the U.S. script. It has not ceased its assertive actions to back up its extraordinary claims in the South China Sea. Indeed it has undertaken “massive” reclamation activities and in CINCPAC Adm. Harry Harris’ view “militarized” the South China Sea, thus changing the “operational nature of the area.” According to Harris, “You would have to believe in a flat Earth to think otherwise.”

But this is not the Cuban Missile Crisis redux. It is not an existential threat to the U.S. or even to the other claimants there. Is it really worth going to war over?

Bellicose nationalists in both countries — political figures, academia and some journalists — have called for tougher actions by each party, forcing the respective leader classes into a political corner. Specifically, some U.S. officials and many politicians and analysts say America should stand up to China regarding its reclamation, militarization and imposition of navigational restrictions around features there. But the real angst is China’s defiance of U.S. preferences, warnings and threats, and now even its show of force.

China’s government controls its media and strongly influences the opinion of its pundits and academics. But what is the excuse for the U.S. press and its analysts and academics operating in a “free society?” With few exceptions they have been beating a drum for war. According to them, China is trying to “change the international rules,” “threatening freedom of navigation,” “bullying” its rival claimants, “militarizing” the features it occupies, undertaking “massive” reclamation activities that damage the environment and just in general behaving badly.

This is mostly hyperbole or an unfair singling out of China. Indeed, this narrative is largely nonsense. In a conflict, the installations would be neutralized in a heartbeat. Moreover, China has never threatened commercial freedom of navigation.

As for violating the existing international rules, the U.S. has not ratified the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which stipulates many of the rules in question. And some of the rules pertaining to military activities at sea are controversial and in flux. Indeed, there are few hard and fast relevant “international rules” that all nations agree on.

Ironically, China is essentially behaving and doing as the U.S. did in the last century, attempting to control its near-shore waters and carve out a sphere of influence — like the U.S. did in the Caribbean and Central and South America.

While China is trying to extend control of what it views as its backyard, the U.S., in apparent response, is projecting power half way around the world. And now we have the spectacle of the commander of the world’s most powerful navy — Harris — publicly pronouncing on U.S. strategy just before a critical visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Washington.

According to Harris, “China seeks hegemony in East Asia.” Not only did such a statement from a serving military officer come close to usurping the president’s prerogative to make and pronounce on broad strategy, it certainly got the attention of China’s leadership. The nationalist Global Times called it “China bashing.” Compounding the issue, the White House did not disavow this statement. Should China’s leadership assume this is President Barack Obama’s position? Moreover the good admiral has now proposed a revival of a strategic coalition of the navies of Japan, Australia, India and the U.S. in what would be a thinly veiled operational alliance against China—or at least perceived as such by China.

As the Australian analyst Hugh White has cogently argued, the U.S. strategy in the South China Sea is failing. The U.S. assumes that it can increase pressure on China with relative impunity until China “blinks and backs off.” But China has so far not been cowed by U.S. diplomatic and military warnings, and shows of force, and instead seems to be signaling by its actions that it will risk a military confrontation to defend its position.

Although the U.S. strike force has now left the South China Sea, its message will resonate within the Chinese military leadership and influence its thinking. Like the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, China is unlikely to forget or forgive. Indeed this will likely give rise to a new strategy.

The U.S. conundrum is “how to avoid a U.S.-China confrontation and maintain U.S. primacy in Asia.” But it cannot have its cake and eat it too. A mutual face-saving compromise is needed.

Conceptually, the U.S. has to accept and accommodate a major role for China in Asian security. In return, China has to do the same regarding a continuing U.S. role and military presence in the region.

In practical terms, the U.S. should put less emphasis on the military dimension of its rebalance to Asia. As a corollary, the U.S. could diminish or cease its provocative, close-in surveillance of China. China could, in turn, not further overtly “militarize” the features and more importantly not declare an air defense identification zone in the Spratlys.

Whatever the compromise, the U.S. should rethink its self-image as well as the limits of its power, and reformulate its strategy— and soon.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China.

  • TBL

    China needs to aim more nukes at the US and her allies. 250 nukes ain’t cutting it. 3,000 is the magic number to get the US to back off or we might as well all fight World War IV with sticks and stones.

  • PulSamsara

    The writer seems to be employed by China ?

    “see through this smokescreen”

    Perhaps the writer prefers to have another 9 dashed line drawn on the EAST side of Japan and the Philippines ?

  • Blargh

    With the amount of nukes that China has… even if China detonates all of them within China’s own territory, the nuclear fallout and ash dissipated into the sky would eventually destroy the world and the US. Anyone here advocating nuclear war is failing a one-question IQ test. So what if the US sends 10,000 nukes at China, and China only sends 1000 nukes into the US. Jesus Christ. The best thing that China can do at this time is to take a lesson from the US’s international military strategy, which is, instead of direct confrontation with the enemy, it is better to fund other countries that oppose the enemy to do the fighting for you. See Taliban which was funded by the US, or ISIS which was initially funded by the US. Now if China started funding the Taliban or the ISIS, or Syria, or rebels in Oregon, to divert US attention away from the south china sea, then we’ll see how that turns out. But as it is right now, I doubt that the US would be willing to escalate to a hot war. The South China sea is directly adjacent to China, separating china from the US’s military bases in Taiwan and Japan. China will stop at nothing to create geographical control between itself and US military bases. Now when China starts sailing military ships through the gulf of mexico or tries to put military bases in Cuba or the Carribeans, I’ll be siding with the the US. But as it stands right now, I see the US as the aggressor and China as on a primarily defensive position. I’m sure if the US removed their military bases in Taiwan and Japan, then China wouldn’t be so aggressive with asserting its control over the south china sea islands.

  • Blargh

    With the amount of nukes that China has… even if China detonates all of them within China’s own territory, the nuclear fallout and ash dissipated into the sky would eventually destroy the world and the US. Anyone here advocating nuclear war is failing a one-question IQ test. So what if the US sends 10,000 nukes at China, and China only sends 1000 nukes into the US. Jesus Christ. The best thing that China can do at this time is to take a lesson from the US’s international military strategy, which is, instead of direct confrontation with the enemy, it is better to fund other countries that oppose the enemy to do the fighting for you. See Taliban which was funded by the US, or ISIS which was initially funded by the US. Now if China started funding the Taliban or the ISIS, or Syria, or rebels in Oregon, to divert US attention away from the south china sea, then we’ll see how that turns out. But as it is right now, I doubt that the US would be willing to escalate to a hot war. The South China sea is directly adjacent to China, separating china from the US’s military bases in Taiwan and Japan. China will stop at nothing to create geographical control between itself and US military bases. Now when China starts sailing military ships through the gulf of mexico or tries to put military bases in Cuba or the Carribeans, I’ll be siding with the the US. But as it stands right now, I see the US as the aggressor and China as on a primarily defensive position. I’m sure if the US removed their military bases in Taiwan and Japan, then China wouldn’t be so aggressive with asserting its control over the south china sea islands.

  • Blargh

    With the amount of nukes that China has… even if China detonates all of them within China’s own territory, the nuclear fallout and ash dissipated into the sky would eventually destroy the world and the US. Anyone here advocating nuclear war is failing a one-question IQ test. So what if the US sends 10,000 nukes at China, and China only sends 1000 nukes into the US. Jesus Christ. The best thing that China can do at this time is to take a lesson from the US’s international military strategy, which is, instead of direct confrontation with the enemy, it is better to fund other countries that oppose the enemy to do the fighting for you. See Taliban which was funded by the US, or ISIS which was initially funded by the US. Now if China started funding the Taliban or the ISIS, or Syria, or rebels in Oregon, to divert US attention away from the south china sea, then we’ll see how that turns out. But as it is right now, I doubt that the US would be willing to escalate to a hot war. The South China sea is directly adjacent to China, separating china from the US’s military bases in Taiwan and Japan. China will stop at nothing to create geographical control between itself and US military bases. Now when China starts sailing military ships through the gulf of mexico or tries to put military bases in Cuba or the Carribeans, I’ll be siding with the the US. But as it stands right now, I see the US as the aggressor and China as on a primarily defensive position. I’m sure if the US removed their military bases in Taiwan and Japan, then China wouldn’t be so aggressive with asserting its control over the south china sea islands.

  • Tachomanx

    So basically the author demands that China be accomodated and for everyone hope China reciprocates the gesture.

    Rubbish I say, keep the pressure on.

  • CaptainAsia

    Dear Japan Times,
    Please do not publish pro China propaganda garbage from so called academics that exploit words to justify laws and rights being broken by the lying CCP. This writer is being paid well by the CCP propaganda department, so he will write anything to appease his masters. However, we do not have to demean ourselves by having to publish his wrong and infected views.

  • wfraser11

    Misstatement #1 in the article “China’s desire to control its nearshore waters” China’s actions clearly reveal they want to control alot more than their nearshore waters, which, like all other signatories to UNCLOS , ends at the 200 mile EEZ limit not 800 miles away in the Philippines coastal waters.
    Misstatement #2 in the article. The author supports China’s announcement that Harris was “China bashing” while pointing out the obvious (i.e. China has announced they now “own” a gigantic and strategically important nternational body of water. He ignores the string of threats emanating from China’s bureaucrats and controlled press against the US, Australia, the Philippines, ASEAN, Malaysia, Japan. Whats up with teh one sided “reporting”? Lets read on.
    “The US strategy in the South China sea is failing”. !! ..An Australian expert quoted here.
    The US press is “Beating a drum for war” Really????? What newspapers is the author reading here? Not the Chinese claims to ownership of this international body of water and not their press releases about their fighter jet and bomber deployments or their missile batteries inside VietNam’s EEZ on the Paracels.
    China plans on announcing an ADIZ. Thats a no brainer. And they are also planning on new bases, Scarborough Shoal being one, and then more further west towards Malaysia. They’ve had a destroyer anchored on a reef in Malysia’s waters for two years. US Navy vessels have been operating in the South China Sea for 150 years, a period of time when Chinese “navy” vessels were nowhere to be seen.
    In fact, other than a fleet of junks commanded by a eunuch 800 years ago, China’s position in the SCS has been basically non existent.
    The Hague decision is going to really hurt them. And the CNO has the President’s complete backing. But hey, nice try !
    Australias leadership does not agree with your thesis of backing down from Chinese aggression. China does not “own” the South China sea.

  • JimmyJM

    This piece was obviously written in Beijing and what does “adjunct
    senior scholar” mean? His statement “overflights by nuclear-capable B-52 bombers” is definitely Beijing inspired propaganda as there was one flight by one unarmed aircraft and it was through the unilaterally declared Chinese aircraft identification zone, a flight path aircraft from all over the world take on a routine basis. The aircraft did not approach mainland China. And as for naval battle groups, American carriers and their escorts have been sailing those seas since before the start of WWII. So our “senior scholar” is either parroting Beijing originated propaganda or has a lot more studying to do.

  • bystander

    A (seeming) American writes a piece datelined in Hawaii for the Japan Times while on the faculty of a state school in Haikou? !

  • The Truth

    A rare but objective article in Japan Times.

  • Sam_boy

    China is ungodly country ruled by thieves. No matter what you do there are no honor among thieves and China will steal resources from his small neighbors like vietnam, taiwan, thailand, and Philippines.

  • Lee Wee Shing

    We Chinese would love to smash Japan and capture its women for our pleasure.

    When we face up to Japan, our hearts will be burning and thinking of all our men, women and children who died during the Japanese occupation. The impetus for revenge will be so great that we want to literally eat every Japanese captured.

  • Ron Yap

    The article above is surely a propaganda. The name appears to be not a Chinese, but surely the tone and context is a Chinese. China is operating to grab and adopt large sea areas owned or given jurisdiction to other countries by the virtue of UNCLOS. The whole of South China Sea could not be owned or ruled by China alone. It passes along the shores of Asean nations, whose territory and wealth should also be protected. Their eyes are open, and their mouth are not gagged. China is grabbing seas and reefs one by one in broad daylight. Who will help the region from a grabbing dragon spewing fire and toxins?

  • seb6

    China dubious historic claim is isolating itself from her neighbours. America, European Union, Asean, Japan, India, Austrialia and all free democratic countries has refuted the excessive 9-dash line claim. It has no place among responsible nations in international waters.

    When I was studying history in secondary school, I never know SCS belong to China. It was an international sea for more than 70 years and we have enjoy peace and prosperity because countries respect that international rules governing the freedom of the seas.

    This has made some Asean countries forming closer ties with America, Japan, India. South Korean is willing to forge normalise ties with Japan. Taiwan forge strategic ties with America and Japan.

    If China wants to be the regional power, it is taking self-defeating steps that fail to promote trust and collaboration with other countries.

  • http://lesstalkmoreactivism.blogspot.com/ Canaan

    “Ironically, China is essentially behaving and doing as the U.S. did in the last century, attempting to control its near-shore waters and carve out a sphere of influence — like the U.S. did in the Caribbean and Central and South America.”

    I’m sorry, but this is a shockingly ridiculous statement. There was no analogue to Japan or South Korea for the U.S. in the Western hemisphere. China is trying to muscle two powerful neighbors in its region.

    It’s more accurate to say China is behaving like Imperial Japan in the early 20th century, bullying nations like Korea and China that would not stand for it in the long-term. Except that, today, Japan and South Korea are very unlikely submissives, much more powerful and nationalistic than the targets of Imperial Japanese hegemony.

    But I think Mr. Valencia is right that the U.S. should prioritize soft power (TPP) in its Asia policy.

  • Ron Yap

    Do not forget Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines, all of them are not pushover. 9 dash line passes within the 200-mile economic zone of those countries. To negate these countries, China is restricting its movement in South China Sea in the near future. Each China ship is like being spied and matched by the navies of these countries, that in 5 years, will be building their own powerful navies that will negate China advantage. These countries will never forget how China robs them of fish, navigable waters without watchful eyes of China, and potential oil wells. Even in a family, all unfairness is a like a dagger that bleeds the heart. China will forever regret undermining these countries, not the US.

  • Ron Yap

    Do not forget Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines, all of them are not pushover. 9 dash line passes within the 200-mile economic zone of those countries. To negate these countries, China is restricting its movement in South China Sea in the near future. Each China ship is like being spied and matched by the navies of these countries, that in 5 years, will be building their own powerful navies that will negate China advantage. These countries will never forget how China robs them of fish, navigable waters without watchful eyes of China, and potential oil wells. Even in a family, all unfairness is a like a dagger that bleeds the heart. China will forever regret undermining these countries, not the US.

  • Emily Han

    Even though I realize that Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China – thus, a China-paid agent, I wonder why internationally reputed paper such as JT finds the need to advance Chinese propaganda despite the fact that their criminal acts are rejected all neighbors?