KANEOHE, HAWAII – 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.
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