Is The China-US South China Sea Struggle Becoming Unmanageable? – Analysis


The China-US military face off in the South China Sea is dangerous. With escalating incidents and burgeoning bellicose rhetoric on both sides it may be on the verge of getting out of control. This week US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson is heading to China to meet his counterpart Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong and leaders of China’s Central Military Commission to discuss reducing risk and avoiding miscalculation. This sounds relatively innocuous.  But the naval leaders will actually be wrestling with long standing difficult differences and are unlikely to make much progress. Hinting at the importance of this upcoming dialogue, Richardson said an “…exchange of views is essential, especially in times of friction…. Honest and frank dialogue can improve the relationship in constructive ways, help explore areas where we share common interests, and reduce risk while we work through our differences.”

Despite Richardson’s optimism –or is it whistling by the graveyard –the situation is rather grim. The US-China disputes in the South China Sea are driven by the much deeper contest to dominate the future Asian regional order. At base the dialectic is simple and stark. America wants to remain the leading strategic power in Asia and China wants to replace it. With their respective influential domestic nationalists  prodding them towards confrontation, neither leadership is likely to back down.

The strategic context is that both see each other as a potential threat and an enemy. The U.S. has publicly declared China a “strategic competitor” and a “revisionist” nation. It believes that the U.S. and China are engaged in  “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” in the Indo-Pacific region.  The US militarist commentariat is clamoring for military confrontation with China.

China has an increasingly similar hostile view of the U.S. and its intentions. It believes that the U.S. wants to contain and constrain its rightful rise and thereby continue its hegemony in the region and the world. This view is reflected in statements like that of Chinese President Xi Jinping warning that China will not be pushed around.”No one is in a position to dictate to the Chinese people what should or should not be done.” This was likely a thinly veiled reference to the U.S. and its recent actions in the South China Sea as well as in other spheres. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said that Washington’s recent moves threaten the “total destruction” of four decades of gains in US-China relations. The tension and the possibility of a clash in the South China Sea is palpable.

Contributing to the increasing tension, the U.S. has stepped up the frequency of its provocative Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) challenging China’s claims. It has signaled increased support for Taiwan by approving three transits of the sensitive Taiwan Strait in one year by warships after a previous hiatus of a year and angered China by approving new arms sales to it. It has increased the frequency of flyovers of the South China Sea by nuclear-capable B52 bombers. The U.S. has publicly excoriated China for “militarizing” its occupied features there and for “coercing and intimidating” rival claimants. To make its point it publicly embarrassed China by rescinding its invitation to participate in the world’s largest multilateral maritime exercise –RIMPAC 2018.  And it has stubbornly—over China’s strong objections—continued to demonstrate ‘in China’s face’  the US policy to “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allowed”.

There has clearly been a recent incremental shift to a more aggressive US military posture in the South China Sea.  US military ‘incrementalism’ there is compatible US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s penchant for taking greater risks than his recent predecessors. He appears to have concentrated control of security matters and Trump is clearly distracted. At least in the near future Bolton will have increased influence on US security policy and actions. Whether the new defense secretary will have the personal clout and connections to counterbalance impulsive decisions by Trump or Bolton on South China Sea issues is an open question.

This perceived US ‘incrementalism’ has prompted China to raise the ante to the verge of miscalculation. In September 2018, a Chinese warship physically blocked the USS Decatur, a guided missile destroyer, while it was conducting a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea.  According to the Pentagon, the Chinese warship conducted increasingly aggressive actions accompanied by warnings urging the Decatur to leave its territorial waters culminating in an “unsafe and unprofessional maneuver”.  Shortly thereafter, PLAN Senior Captain Zhang Junshe warned that the U.S. would be to blame for any military clash between the two.

In January, after another US warship conducted a FONOP near the Chinese-claimed Paracel Islands, Chinese state media reported the deployment of the PLA’s advanced DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles. The “ship killer” missile has a maximum range of about 3400 nm bringing much of the South China Sea within range.

This threat was reinforced by Chinese Rear Admiral Lou Yuan’s call for a missile attack on US aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. He declared that “What the United States fears the most is taking casualties”.

Luo has been likened to US Air Force General Curtis Le May, the then Air Force Chief of Staff who advocated bombing Soviet missile sites in Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis, an act that could have started a nuclear war.

What makes this situation so serious is what David Gompert–formerly the second-highest-ranking intelligence official in the Obama Administration– calls “crisis instability.”  This occurs when “the price of failing to attack before the opponent does mean defeat.  Each side knows the other is thinking the same way and so has all the more incentive to act preemptively if war seems imminent.  Or probable.  Or maybe just possible.  Given the penalty for attacking second, such spiraling logic can turn confrontation into conflagration.” 

According to Gompert, China is particularly worried about a long war in which the technically superior U.S. forces would prevail. So their military is developing plans and tactics for early and swift strikes to take out US carriers, air bases, and command and control networks, including satellites.”  Gompert argues that as a result, “crisis instability” involving the two is increasing rapidly. The situation may be reaching a ‘tipping’ point or even a ‘trigger’ point– and urgently needs to be addressed.

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.

One thought on “Is The China-US South China Sea Struggle Becoming Unmanageable? – Analysis

  • January 21, 2019 at 3:27 pm

    Thanks for an excellent summary and interesting “dual perspective” on the South China Sea issues. As I retired Naval Officer, I would encourage you and others writing on this topic to consider more deeply the purposes of Freedom of Navigation (FoN) Operations, which is formally and legally object to excessive maritime claims by any nation. These operations do antagonize the PRC, that is not the main objective. While FonOps can be risky, if we do NOT execute those operations, we provide de facto recognition of Chinese territorial claims, at the expense of other Asia partners and our own ability to transit international waters. Chinese expansion of these claims requires increased frequency of US Navy FoNOps.


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