Many policy makers and analysts agree that there is a surging soft and hard power struggle between China and the U.S. for dominance in the South China Sea –and Southeast Asia. But as tension mounts, the U.S. seems to be in a quandary as to what to do. Some argue strongly that the U.S. should militarily confront China there –now. Others argue just as strenuously that it would not be in the U.S. national interest to do so – not now anyway, and not over disputed flyspecks and resources in the South China Sea in which it has no direct stake. But before making that critical policy decision, the U.S. should have a grand strategy for Asia and determine the role of the South China Sea in it. But what are the U.S. goals in Asia and does it have a ‘grand strategy’ to achieve them? If so, what are they, and what is the role of the South China Sea’?
First some context. The US-China struggle for control of the South China Sea is symptomatic of much deeper differences –in effect a “clash of civilizations”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clash_of_Civilizations According to the originator of this theory, Samuel Huntington, human conflict has transitioned to a new phase in which formerly dominated, abused and exploited cultures and nations of the non-Western world have increasingly become significant players in the shaping of the international order. The Sinic culture led by China is prominent among them. China President Xi Jinping has explicitly recognized this fundamental divergence of cultural identities and world views. Indeed, he has encouraged a rejection of Western influence and implicitly of Western models. According to Xi, ‘many aspects of China’s modernization process must have Chinese characteristics and the Chinese Communist Party must provide guidance on every aspect of human behavior’. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/26/world/asia/xi-jinping-thought-explained-a-new-ideology-for-a-new-era.html; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/20/world/asia/china-xi-jinping-helmsman-congress.html.
This possibly existential contest between it and the West –led by the U.S. –is being played out in the South China Sea. The U.S. is clearly the superior military power—overall –and in the South China Sea. However, China is rapidly eroding the US military advantage there. China also seems to be gaining the soft power advantage by virtue of its geographic position as a permanent part of Asia, and its burgeoning economic largesse. Indeed, according to Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi, the U.S. , seems to be “needlessly confrontational without being sufficiently competitive” regarding China and the South China Sea
The broad U.S. policy alternatives seem to range from ‘share power’– as proposed by Xi https://www.brookings.edu/on-the-record/a-new-type-of-major-power-relationship/; ‘confront’; or ‘engage but hedge’ and hope “China will become a liberal democracy, or at least accept a subordinate place in the American-led international order.” https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/china-america-and-thucydides-interview-graham-allison However, the latter is unlikely to happen. As Lee Kuan Yu once put it, China wants to be “accepted as China, not as an honorary member of the West”. https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/02/16/will-china-ever-be-no-1/
To share power in the region, the U.S. would have to accommodate to some degree China’s international interests and aspirations–when, on what issues, how, and how much would have to be negotiated with China. But the U.S. has no history or precedent of willingly sharing power and it is not likely to start in the Trump administration. As prominent Australian analyst Hugh White says, “the US policy community has, with few exceptions, failed so far to understand the nature or the scale of the challenge it faces in negotiating [a] new relationship with China. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/pivot-yes-it-all-about-chinaAs for confrontation, White argues, Washington has shown “no appetite for engaging in a confrontation with China” in its own backyard where it might take heavy losses and not win quickly or outright”.
None of these policy alternatives seems to be viable. Moreover, choosing one or a combination thereof would be premature and temporary– unless and until a grand strategy is determined. The U.S. is still searching for a ‘new’ one. Meanwhile, by default, the existing grand strategy remains a continuation of historical components.
According to Michael Green, the former senior director for Asia policy at the US National Security Council, the driving forces of US Asia policy have always been a balance of faith, commerce, geography and self-defense. https://cup.columbia.edu/book/by-more-than-providence/9780231180429; http://www.nbr.org/publications/element.aspx?id=995
The fundamental central theme of US strategy towards Asia has been “_ _ opposition to any other power exercising exclusive hegemonic control over Asia _ _”. This has now been incorporated in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. https://www.youtube.com/user/statevideo
And this is what the U.S. thinks China is attempting to achieve in the South China Sea–through revising the ‘international order’ there– and this is why the South China Sea is so ideationally important to the U.S.
Another reason for the importance of the South China Sea to the U.S. is the location and nature of its ‘defensive line’ in Asia. Such a defensive line has been a main component of US strategy in Asia throughout its history. http://www.nbr.org/publications/asia_policy/free/AsiaPolicy13-3_ByMoreThanProvidence_BRRT.pdf . A major current question for US South China Sea policy is where to draw its defensive line vis a vis China. Should it be closer to Asia, closer to Hawaii or stay more or less where it is – along the First Island Chain (Japan-Taiwan-the Philippines-East Malaysia – Indonesia) and then north to Vietnam. If it is to be closer to China, then the U.S. would have to confront China in the South China Sea.
But even before the U.S. determines its goals and grand strategy, sets the location of its defensive line and derives its policy and tactics there from, some argue that it first needs to define its current “essential US foreign policy issues in Asia” https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/12/the-united-states-is-losing-asia-to-china/
What are ‘essential foreign policy issues for the U.S.? According to Stephen G. Brooks, these should include the assurance “_ _that none of the ‘core territory’ of its allies is ever lost to China _ _.” http://www.nbr.org/publications/asia_policy/free/AsiaPolicy13-3_ByMoreThanProvidence_BRRT.pdf To him, core territory does not include the resources and rocks in the South China Sea. It must also ensure that “China cannot interrupt the flow of seaborne commerce over the long term” by retaining the option to undertake a distant blockade of China to force it to reverse course” or by denying China control of the South and East China Sea. This is also part of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept.
For Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi, the fundament for a consistent, unified, successful grand strategy is “clarity of purpose” and the “deliberate identification of ends, ways, and means.” Most important in the construction of a ‘new’ grand strategy, the U.S. first needs to determine what it must have and what it merely prefers –particularly regarding the South China Sea. Indeed, as policy analysts Robert Manning and James Pryzstup argue, the U.S. needs to come to terms with the “great strategic question of our time: what Chinese role in the Asia-Pacific can it live with”? https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/08/17/stop-the-south-china-sea-charade/
But so far the Trump administration seems to lack the focus and discipline to accomplish this. So the US strategy and policy regarding its role in Asia and the South China Sea remains a ‘work in progress’.
*Mark J. Valencia, Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China
This piece first appeared in the IPP Review. http://www.ippreview.com/index.php/Blog/single/id/771.html