Implications Of US ‘Incrementalism’ In The South China Sea – Analysis


Western analysts often accuse China of “salami-slicing” in the South China Sea.  They mean that they think it is using a premeditated strategy to incrementally advance its interests there.  They say it purposely takes one small step forward at a time so that it does not clearly cross any political “red lines” in the eyes of its opponents and the international community. 

More pertinent to the U.S. in this situation, it also means that any kinetically confrontational response by an opponent to such a small seemingly innocuous step will make that opponent look unnecessarily belligerent and provocative.  Taking a page out of China’s playbook, the U.S. is now incrementally increasing its frequency and type of FONOPs in the South China Sea.  This is designed to reassure its friends and allies of its resolve and, more importantly, to put the onus on China to take the political and military risk of confrontation and possible conflict. But employing this tactic also has negative implications for its standing in the region.

This ‘incrementalism’ may reflect US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s penchant for brinkmanship and taking greater risks than his recent predecessors.  In any case it is clear that the U.S. is putting more ‘skin’ in this dangerous game and that the next move is up to China.  The recent “unsafe” and “unprofessional”

confrontation and near collision between a Chinese warship and the US warship Decatur while it was executing a FONOP may reflect China’s decision to step up the intensity of its response to these provocative probes. Indeed, it may indicate a change in China’s rules of engagement from simply shadowing US warships undertaking provocative missions that violate China’s laws to physically harass them and even try to block them from doing so. .  At the least it is a warning that it could do so. Clearly this US ‘incrementalism’ could easily transition to confrontation and conflict. 

The U.S. Navy and some US analysts claim these FONOPs are non-political. But China certainly does not see it this way. 

Indeed, it views them as an attempt to intimidate it with ‘gunboat diplomacy’ and therefore a threat to its national security. Seemingly confirming this perception, two days after the most recent FONOP challenging China’s maritime claims in the Paracels (the Chancellorsville incident), the U.S. also sent two U.S. Navy vessels through the Taiwan Strait.  This would usually not be a big deal. But it was the third such transit of the sensitive strait in a year after a previous year-long hiatus and it came on the eve of the US President Donald J. Trump-China President Xi Jinping meeting at the G20.  

Worse, given the rapid deterioration of US-China relations and it ratcheted up pressure on China to respond in some fashion.   Of course China vehemently protested the transit, pointing out that the Taiwan issue is “the most important and sensitive issue” between China and the U.S. .

The problem with this approach at this time for the U.S. is that it undermines its political legitimacy on this issue vis a vis China that it wants and needs.  The U.S. is already losing the public relations battle.   Meeting shortly after the Decatur incident, the chair of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Plus Meeting Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Heng expressed unusually blunt concern.  

Ng said that “Some of the incidents are from assertion of principles, but we recognize that the price of any physical incident is one that is too high and unnecessary to either assert or prove your position.”  This criticism seemed directed at the U.S. use of warships to assert its legal position.

In sharp contrast, he also said that “ASEAN and China should carry out more and bigger exercises in the future to build mutual confidence”.  Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said that ” _ _ the threat of confrontation and trouble in the waterway came from outside the region.”  Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad added that “big warships [in the South China Sea] may cause incidents and that will lead to tension.”

Some analysts question whether repeating the same FONOP challenging the same claim in an already tense environment is unnecessarily provocative.  For example, the U.S. has undertaken many FONOPs that challenge China’s straight baselines around the Paracels as well as its regime requiring prior permission for warships to enter its territorial sea.  Indeed, since 2015 it has undertaken at least six such FONOPs, three of them against China’s baselines enclosing the Paracels, including two this year. Were these all necessary from the standpoint of preserving the US legal position? Were they worth the risk of instability, confrontation and possible conflict and the alienation of potential supporters in Southeast Asia?

Some think even one FONOP may be unnecessary to preserve the US legal position. They say US non-acquiescence to China’s claims could be effectively and sufficiently demonstrated by verbal and written diplomatic communiqués rather than ‘gunboat diplomacy.’ The U.S. has repeatedly officially stated its legal position.

Moreover, the U.S. State Department’s publication Limits in the Sea 117 makes crystal clear its detailed legal position regarding China’s closing baselines around the Paracels. It states that according to the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) –which the U.S. alone among maritime powers has not ratified–no country would be allowed to establish straight baselines enclosing the entire Paracel Island group.  Moreover, its Limits in the Seas 112 clearly disputes many other Chinese claims in the South China Sea. These include its claims to excessive straight baselines elsewhere; to jurisdiction over airspace above the exclusive economic zone; its domestic law criminalizing survey activity by foreign entities in the EEZ; and China’s requirement of prior permission for innocent passage of foreign warships through its territorial sea.

Refraining from ‘in your face’ use of warships in favor of diplomatic protest is more consonant with the UN Charter. It requires that “[a]ll Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.”  Use of warships to challenge claims might even be interpreted as a threat of use of force which is also a violation of the UN Charter. According to William Aceves of California Western School of Law “the notion that states must take action which may lead to a violent confrontation or lose their rights under international law is inconsistent with the most basic principles of international law.”

Ironically, China may have recently adhered to this principle. In response to the Chancellorsville FONOP, China issued a formal diplomatic protest rather than harassing and trying to physically block the vessel as it did in the Decatur incident.

While the U.S. may think it is cleverly using a variant of China’s salami slicing strategy against it, it is losing in the court of public opinion.   Indeed, it is not in keeping with the spirit of ‘truce’ emanating from the Trump –Xi meeting at the G20. Many think the U.S. is playing an increasingly dangerous game at the potential expense of peace and stability in the South China Sea.

*About the author: Mark J. Valencia, Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

This piece first appeared in the IPP Review.

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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