The visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia signals a new era of competition between the United States and China in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. China critics in the U.S. frequently warn of what they assume are China’s dangerous intentions regarding the South China Sea – and what it may do to achieve its goals. They say it wants to dominate the sea militarily as part of its ambitious and aggressive expansionism and that therefore it will continue to militarize the features it occupies and undertake major naval exercises there. They say China may interfere with freedom of commercial navigation and essentially control all activities there including fishing and oil and gas exploration and development. To accomplish this, it will continue to intimidate its rival claimants, coerce them via economic aid and ‘debt traps’, and defy – and change – the existing applicable intentional rules.
Reinforcing these warnings, the U.S. has officially declared China a “strategic competitor and a “revisionist nation”. It has thus made clear that it considers China a potential enemy, and it is presumed that “the gnomes in the basement” of the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department are constructing and planning for worst case scenarios — including war. More specifically, the U.S. has repeatedly criticized China’s claims, actions and policies in the South China Sea and has even publicly embarrassed it by barring it from its world’s largest 27 country Rim of the Pacific naval exercises until it has “ceased all land reclamations activities in the South China Sea” and ‘removed all weapons from its land reclamation sites.’ http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/09/11/asean-and-china-should-seize-the-opportunity-in-the-south-china-sea/
But we do not read as much about what China’s strategic thinkers believe the U.S. intentions are in the South China Sea and what they think the U.S. might do to achieve its goals there. Indeed, because of this information deficiency—or what the U.S. calls “lack of transparency” – – U.S. strategic analysts are left to speculate on China’s intentions. However in doing so, they may be underestimating China’s ability to project and plan for what it views as worst scenarios regarding the U.S. ‘threat’. Therefore it may be useful to begin a discussion of China’s perspective regarding the South China Sea with a hypothetical tapestry of China’s thinking.
Some strategic thinkers in China have concluded that China and the U.S. are almost certain to clash militarily because of ‘civilizational’ and ideological differences –as well as the sheer desire of both to dominate. Indeed, some think the U.S. wants to continue to dominate the South China Sea militarily as part of its overall strategy to contain and constrain China. They expect various specific U.S. moves to try to reach this goal. http://en.nanhai.org.cn/index/research/paper_c/id/181.html#div_content
From their perspective the U.S. is trying to prevent its rightful domination of its ‘near seas’ like the South China Sea and in doing so is supporting former Western colonies that have been ‘stealing’ its fish and petroleum for decades in collaboration with outside Western entities. Much to their chagrin, they point out that after agreeing in the 2002 China-ASEAN Declaration on Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea to resolve the disputes “through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned_ _ ,” some of the other claimants have welcomed the U.S. and even its and their former arch enemy Japan to ‘intervene’ in the issues.
In the military sphere they expect the U.S. to increase its operations there as well as its exercises with, and port visits to allies and friends in the region, and to attempt to obtain access to more ‘places’ for refurbishing and refreshing its military. They also expect the U.S. to increase the frequency and scope of its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) challenging China’s claims, and to try to persuade its allies to participate—or at least to undertake their own. Validating these fears ,US FONOPS targeting China’s claims in the South China Sea have already increased under President Donald J. Trump’s administration, and Japan’s largest Maritime Self Defense Force naval vessel –the helicopter carrier JS Kaga –and its escorts have just exercised with the US Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group in the South China Sea. https://thediplomat.com/2018/09/chinese-navy-frigates-trail-japanese-helicopter-destroyer-in-the-south-china-sea/. Moreover, just a few days ago, a U.K. warship challenged China’s claimed of baselines around the Paracel Islands.https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/royal-navy-china-warship-challenge-south-sea-islands-hms-albion-uk-freedom-of-navigation-a8525206.html
These analysts also project that the U.S. will continue to interfere in the ASEAN-China negotiations to formulate a code of conduct for the South China Sea. http://www.bworldonline.com/us-reaffirms-position-in-south-china-sea-code-negotiations/. They also expect the U.S. to increase its efforts to pull China’s rivals like the Philippines and Vietnam deeper into its orbit with economic and military assistance, and veiled threats of ‘punishment’ if they stray too far toward China. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2163415/weary-and-wary-philippine-president-rodrigo-duterte-takes-china
In a worst scenario they think that the U.S. will encourage these rivals to take unilateral actions against China’ claims and actions in the South China Sea with vague hints of backing them up if they are attacked. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2160086/us-will-be-good-ally-philippines-if-beijing- Also in a worst scenario, they project that the U.S. will implement a blockade of its economic lifeline –particularly of its oil and gas imports– traversing the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea.
In the broader strategic arena, these analysts expect the U.S. to stoke the Taiwan issue and to encourage Japan to step up its military activities in the East China Sea as ways of distracting and pressuring China regarding the South China Sea. They also see the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Quad—a potential—but unlikely—partnership between Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. –as a means to constrain and contain it –in general –and in the South China Sea.
One may argue that some or all of this is paranoia on the part of both—and some of it may well be. Nevertheless this is a realistic hypothetical description of the strategic view from China. You may have a different set of assumptions and hypotheses. But the point is that a one-sided perspective is unhelpful and only stimulates a spiral of worst scenario thinking and formulation of plans to counter them.
Yes, China has behaved badly in the South China Sea. So have other claimants–and the U.S. All need to tone down rhetoric, incorporate balance in their strategic analyses and be realistic in diagnoses, prognoses and prescriptions. Above all is a need for both China and the U.S. and their strategic analysts — to understand how the other sees the problem. They should look for areas of possible compromise rather than simply spin out worst scenarios based on questionable assumptions.
*Mark J. Valencia, Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China
This piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/united-states/article/2165653/south-china-sea-how-well-do-china-and-us#comments