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The South China Sea: Clusters Emerge From The Geopolitical Mist – Analysis

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In mid to late October, naval forces of China and Russia undertook their first joint exercises and patrol in the Sea of Japan the Western Pacific and the East China Sea. The ten warships circumnavigated the Japanese archipelago and in the process passed through two of Japan’s strategic straits. The quick transition from joint exercises to a patrol demonstrated the capability to shift easily from peacetime to wartime status. Mimicking the usual US defense of its exercises in the region, China said that they were “not aimed at any third parties”. But this was a clear show of force in response to the recent shows of force by the U.s. and its allies and the US –driven formation of anti-China coalitions focused on the region. Geopolitical clusters are emerging from the swirling mist of US-China contention for domination of the South China Sea.

This was to be expected. The U.S. has been ramping up its naval and airforce presence in the South China Sea. In July 2020, the U.S had two aircraft carrier strike groups operating there together “to reinforce our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, a rules based international order, and to our allies and partners in the region”. This is a euphemism for its campaign against China’s for its policies and actions in the South China Sea. China was so concerned by the US shows of force there that the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Miley, felt he had to reassure China that the U.S. was not planning to attack it. Yet this was followed by naval exercises between the US and its allies the U.K., Japan, Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands in the Philippine Sea –followed by more exercises in the South China Sea including those between US and Japanese carrier strike groups.

The US response to the perceived China threat is to build overlapping political and military coalitions of like-minded democracies to contain China—including in Asia– Japan, Australia, India and South Korea—and in Europe– the U.K., Germany and France. The maritime dimension of these coalitions is currently coagulating.

US-driven anti-China security partnerships like the Quad and now AUKUS have only compounded the situation and raised the likelihood of a US-China clash.

The Quad — short for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue– is a security forum of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. that purports to maintain a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. The Quad leaders met in person in Washington last week and reaffirmed that they will “champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas”.  This statement alludes to what they consider China’s illegitimate claims in the South China Sea and the disingenuously hyped ‘threat’ to freedom of navigation there.  The Quad countries have undertaken several joint naval exercises. The U.S. –which is now the driving force – clearly hopes it will become an anti-China security partnership and is pushing it in that direction despite reservations by India, perhaps Japan and some Southeast Asian countries.

AUKUS is an agreement between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S for the U.S. and the U.K. to supply nuclear powered submarines and underwater drone technology to Australia. A major use of these assets will be to maintain the ‘balance of power’ in the South China Sea, thus locking Australia into the US military strategy to contain China. More significant, they also agreed  to “rotations of US fighters and bombers to northern Australia” and to potentially “acquire more rotational basing for its submarines in Perth”. So the U.S. military will be using Australia as a base for its surveillance and deterrence of China in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

These aggressive US-driven realpolitik strategic moves are meant to counter what it sees as the ‘China threat’ to its hegemony in Asia. Although war between China and the U.S. may not be inevitable, it is 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 interest” or the U.S. to accommodate some of them. It seems that neither is inclined to do so. Both claim they do not want conflict. But despite rapidly deteriorating relations, they cannot agree on how to avoid it. The result is a geopolitical and a military game of ‘chicken’ centering on the South China Sea– but with critical security implications for the region.

China responded to the multiple shows of force against it with shows of force of its own. It undertook massive naval exercises in the South China Sea and flew a record nearly 100 sorties of bombers, fighters and intelligence aircraft over several days southwest of Taiwan in part of what Taiwan claims is its Air Defense Identification Zone.

There is a stark contrast in national views. 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 says autocracies –like China and Russia—are betting that their systems will out compete 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 that they can and will do so.

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. Shi Yinhong, an advisor to China’s government, says “the Chinese leaders have deemed that changing its fundamental policy is “not possible, or at least not worth it”.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has laid out the specifics of China’s position. He reportedly told US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in their 26 July meeting in Tianjin 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.”

 But the US continues to do all three.

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”. Even if China were to moderate its more egregious behavior as a temporary tactic, it seems that nothing will deter it from its goals of being respected as a nation and a people equal to the U.S. and Americans.

There are three issue clusters where unilateral actions by either side could trigger war—Taiwan, the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

The first two are the most dangerous. But precisely because they are most dangerous and the red lines are clear, China, Japan and the U.S. will likely avoid kinetic conflict there—for the time being.

This brings us to the South China Sea where the red lines are more ambiguous—but just as real and dangerous.

The current situation is tense. US –China relations are bad and headed in the wrong direction. Under US President Donald J. Trump, US- China relations overall and in the South China Sea in particular rapidly deteriorated.    Both escalated the situation with belligerent rhetoric and military posturing and they became locked in a dilemma driven by mutual distrust.   Each claimed to be responding to the other and neither wanted to make the first move to de-escalate. A clash became a distinct possibility and both militaries began preparing for the worst. 

The Biden administration has continued and even intensified this military posturing. Indeed, the U.S. approach is to “meet China’s greater assertiveness with a more assertive use of force of its own.”

On the eve of his late July visit to Southeast Asia, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he intended to emphasize a commitment to freedom of the seas and push back on “unhelpful and unfounded claims” made by China in the South China Sea. And so it goes on the path to confrontation and conflict.

The US-China dialectic is driving the coagulation of geopolitical clusters focused on the region — the U.S. and its allies and ‘partners’ like India versus China and its deepening military relationship with Russia. The same thinking that brought humankind the Cold War with its ‘you are either with us or against us’ divisiveness, proxy wars and foreign manipulated ‘regime change’  is pushing the rivals towards a new standoff — call it what you will — and increasing the likelihood of an Armaggedon. They both need to rethink and adjust priorities to facilitate compromise and a sharing of power before it is too late. 

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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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