Agreement On ‘Guard Rails’ For US And China In South China Sea Won’t Be Easy – OpEd


The virtual summit between China’s President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden produced more questions than answers. They both seemed to want to downplay the perception that the two nuclear powers are on the brink of conflict and to create the appearance that they can manage their competition. Nevertheless, the fundamental question remains. Can they prevent the “slow-motion collision that is unfolding between their very different world views”? In an effort to do so, the U.S. is proposing to set “guard rails” to avoid a clash. What might they be?

First some context. Although war between China and the U.S. may not be inevitable, it is clearly becoming increasingly likely. The two are on a fundamental collision course driven by competing ideologies, ambitions and visions of the ‘international order’. Although compromise and co-existence may still be possible, this would require either China to abandon some of its “core interests” or the U.S. to accommodate some of them. It seems that neither is inclined to do so.

The contrast between national views is stark. US President Joe Biden believes that the world is at a turning point in history.  He has publicly identified what he considers a long term existential threat to democracy and thus Americans’ fundamental beliefs and way of life. He believes autocracies –like China and Russia—are betting that their systems will outcompete democracies in addressing the enormous and increasingly complex challenges of the 21st century. He said that they think that democracies– with their byzantine systems of checks and balances– will not be able to function efficiently and effectively to meet these challenges and the expectations of their peoples—and that they can and will do so.

But the differences may be even more fundamental. The late Lee Kuan Yew hit the nail on the head when he doubted that the U.S. would be able to peacefully adapt to a rising China. ” For America to be displaced_ _ in the western Pacific by an Asian people long despised and dismissed with contempt__ is emotionally very difficult to accept. The sense of cultural supremacy of the Americans will make the adjustment most difficult”.

The U.S. will soon release new government reports that will lay out the Biden administration’s strategic view of China for all to see. These include its National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review. If its anti-China Free and Open Indo-Pacific, the Quad and AUKUS are an indication of the US strategic thrust, the “slow motion collision” of goals, systems and values will continue and may even accelerate.

Indeed, those who think the Xi-Biden summit smoothed things over and all will be well, need to think again. The U.S. just does not accept that China wants to be treated as an equal. It continues to treat China as a subordinate that must be cajoled and coerced into complying with “the international order” built by the West and now led and defended primarily by the US. But China’s President Xi Jinping has stated that China will not be “bullied, oppressed, or subjugated”, nor will it evolve in directions set by others. Something has to give.

At their summit, Biden told Xi that the U.S. would be working with its allies and partners to “advance an international system that is free, open and fair”. Of course he meant “fair’ in the US view and that is a problem for China. In the aftermath of the summit, senior US officials urged China to abide by “the rules of the road”. According to US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the U.S is trying to “ensure that there are guard rails around the US-China competition”. He went on to say that the U.S. and its partners would be “writing the rules to advance their interests and values__”. As Graham Allison has observed, “Washington urges other powers to accept the rule-based international order over which it presides. But through Chinese eyes, it looks like the Americans make the rules and others obey Washington’s commands“.

From China’s perspective unilaterally set “guard rails” are a non-starter. It wants to manage their differences “from an equal point of view.” Indeed, China has its own idea of “guard rails”. In a 26 July meeting with US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi laid out the specifics. He said that China had three bottom lines–“the United States must not challenge or seek to subvert China’s model of governance; it must not interfere in China’s development; and it must not violate China’s sovereignty or harm its territorial integrity.” In China’s eyes, the U.S. continues to do all three.

The U.S. probably has its own set of general “guard rails” in mind—like no attack or threat of use of force against Taiwan; no attack or threats thereof on its allies or their military assets; and no interference with commercial navigation. If China enforces its recently passed law requiring foreign commercial and military vessels to notify it before entering its territorial waters, it will in US eyes be violating commercial freedom of navigation. The most dangerous issue —Taiwan –was discussed at the summit but no “guard rails” were agreed.

The South China Sea is at the crux of their strategic contest.  For China, the South China Sea is a historically vulnerable underbelly that must be turned into a “natural shield for its national security.” It hosts its vital sea lanes of communication that it believes the U.S. could and would disrupt in a conflict. But even more important, it provides relative ‘sanctuary’ for its second strike nuclear submarines that are its insurance against a first strike against it– something the U.S.—unlike China–has not disavowed. 

In the South China Sea, China’s “guard rails” are more ambiguous—but very real.  China’s body politic has become increasingly nationalistic and any public national loss of face and resultant loss of respect for leadership could be a red line. This could include a confrontation involving military assets and a forced climb down by China’s PLAN. 

Another red line is any threat to its nuclear capable submarines that comprise its existential defense—its second or retaliatory nuclear strike capability. This plays out through its military facilities on its occupied features. Many of the hundreds of US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes in the South China Sea  each year focus on detecting, tracking and if necessary targeting China’s nuclear submarines. China’s response has been to build up capabilities on some of the features it occupies to neutralize US ISR and thus enhance the survivability of its nuclear submarines in the early stages of a conflict. For China these installations are critical to its defense.

The implication is that it is in the U.S. strategic security interest to counter or even remove China’s military assets on these outposts.  But for China, targeting its installations on its occupied South China Sea features would be a red line.

These are ‘must have’ guard rails. But there are others that if observed could greatly contribute to a lessening of tensions. They could begin by decreasing the tone and tenor of their rhetoric. While such rhetoric is primarily intended for their domestic audiences it also makes it difficult to search for and domestically sell compromises.

For the U.S., this would include no harassment of its ‘legal’ IRS probes; no construction on new features like Scarborough Shoal; and no further militarization on its occupied features.

China would like to see a reduction if nor cessation of what it considers threatening behavior like close in ISR and Freedom of Navigation Operations. Perhaps this is why Biden reportedly assured Xi that the U.S. would “stay outside of their territorial waters” for the time being, but “would not be intimidated.”

China would also like the US to cease provocative warship transits through the Taiwan Strait. It would also greatly appreciate cessation of the latest trend toward high US government officials visiting Taiwan, especially those using military transport.

According to Sullivan, both sides will soon begin arms control talks that “cut across security, technology and diplomacy”. This holds out some hope for mutually agreeable guard rails. But don’t hold your breath.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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