Recently Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi issued a stern statement urging the Great Powers to avoid adding to maritime political tensions. In comments that came less than two months after the US sailed a Navy warship into disputed waters claimed by China in the South China Sea, Wang said that “non-regional” actors are fanning the dispute. Wang mentioned that the situation is “relatively stable” and will remain so as China wants a “status quo” situation. This comes after the Australian Navy conducted a maritime “FON” naval flight with a P3 Orion aircraft. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei was quoted by the BBC as saying: “Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is not a problem. Countries outside of this area should respect other countries’ sovereignty and not deliberately make trouble.”
In response, Australia’s Defence Minister Marise Payne said that Australia will not bow to Chinese pressure to halt surveillance flights over the disputed islands in the South China Sea that are at the center of different rival claims by a number of countries of that region. Payne continued that Canberra is not deterred by warnings from Beijing, and would continue to navigate the region with its naval planes, adding that the navigations would be “constructive”. This charts an interesting new posture and makes one wonder, if there is a pattern in this behavior, and what does IR theory tell us about it? Is this a new stage of brinkmanship that we are seeing now, and if so, what are the reasons and the main actors behind it?
On the face of it all, these are isolated incidents, but if one goes deeper, one might observe a definitive pattern in this behavior. Let’s take a look at a few other causal incidents. Recently we saw the US offering weapons to Taiwan, drawing an angry rebuke from Beijing. The offer of selling 1.8 billion dollars worth of arms to Taiwan has made China threaten to sanction the arms manufacturers. The US State Department formally notified Congress of its plan to sell two naval warships, TOWs, amphibious vehicles and SAMs, in the first arms package sale to Taiwan in four years. The massive contract also includes Perry class frigates and Javelin missiles.
All of this points to what we might call Buckpassing in alliance formations. To make it clear right at the outset, it is evident that neither the US as an established hegemon nor China as a rising hegemon is interested in a war in South China Sea. The US has made this clear by having back channel talks with China, and having, what is called an “innocent passage” in marine terms, rather than the much hyped FONOP in South China Sea.
To explain it clearly, a Freedom of Navigation Operation for a warship essentially means that it will conduct all the behavior that it might conduct in the high seas, including flying helicopters, and pointing guns without permission. The US Navy did no such thing when it recently passed in the South China Sea, which explains the muted reaction of both the US and China as both sides didn’t want to exaggerate the operation. In fac, the US and China were extra clear so that this didn’t escalate into a conflict.
Buckpassing is when a great power delegates its policing or balancing behavior to other regional powers and allies. It works well for two reasons. Firstly when both the superpowers are rational actors, and assuming the US and China here are both rational, it gives them room to maneuver. The chances of a rhetorical escalation is much higher for a US Navy plane being escorted by a Chinese fighter, as neither side can then appear to back down as it turns into a matter of pride. However, that consideration is much less for a Chinese fighter escorting an Australian Navy plane or Destroyer.
Secondly, in any case that it does escalate into a shooting contest, it can be limited to regional actors, and won’t involve a superpower. Again for example, if a Chinese fighter fires a warning shot over a Taiwanese or Australian plane, or a Chinese gunboat fires over the bow of a warship, which is not American, it is hard to imagine that that regional power would return with even more reinforced firepower, with orders to shoot back. They frankly cannot afford a war with China, without American support, and neither China nor America wants a war. To put it simply, a Turkey-Russia situation is hard to imagine in the South China Sea.
Yet, there are chances of miscalculation. Usually there are a lot of hints and implied communication in these situations, and sometimes perceptions become important. Allies can also be unreliable and might fail to catch the buck or fail to understand how far they can or should go and when they should back off. As a result they can act rashly, like Turkey with Russia, and that might then escalate into a regional conflict. And frankly, brinkmanship is unpredictable in the best of situations, even in the most stable form of binary balancing. And these are unpredictable times indeed. However, it is heartening to see, that no one power here is trying to act too unreasonable and keeping within their room of backing down. One can just hope the concerned powers with this regard, continue to have the common sense to keep their channels of communication open.