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The Folly of America’s ‘New’ Policy on the South China Sea

2020-11-06 15:23:24       source:NISCSS

September 30, 2020

China and the United States are drifting toward a showdown in the South China Sea. As an indication of the seriousness of the situation, China has ordered its pilots and naval officers “not to fire the first shot” in increasingly frequent and dangerous military-to-military encounters.1 In the midst of rapidly deteriorating relations, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently expounded on US policy toward China’s actions in the South China Sea. Although it was a carefully worded legal and political clarification of existing policy, its tone was certainly more confrontational. After declaring support for the specifics of the international arbitration decision against China won by the Philippines, Pompeo declared that the US considers China’s interference with Southeast Asian countries’ fishing or oil exploration and exploitation in their legitimate maritime zones — and its own exploration/exploitation there — to be “unlawful” and “bullying.”2 The statement’s political core was the declaration that: “The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources.” These were bold words, and to China belligerent ones. What would be “new” is if the US attempts to back them up with action. Indeed, how the US follows up this statement and China’s response will have major consequences for US-China relations and stability in the South China Sea.


The political context of the statement is important. The US considers China a “strategic competitor” and a “revisionist” nation. It believes that it and China are engaged in “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” in the Indo-Pacific region.3 Pompeo has now even framed this conflict in existential terms, saying “the world cannot be safe until China changes,” perhaps crossing “a point of no return.”China already believes that the US wants to contain and constrain its rightful rise and thus continue its hegemony in the region. This call for what is essentially regime change may, in China’s view, be the last straw. This is the context of the confrontation in the South China Sea, where China is politically and militarily challenging US hegemony and the US is resisting in every way it can. The current US approach seems to be to “meet China’s greater assertiveness with a more assertive use of force of its own.”5According to US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the US is building “the capabilities that we need to deter China from committing to a major confrontation.”6 As US President Donald Trump’s re-election chances wane and he becomes desperate, an attempt to unite the country behind him by confronting China and even risking a “controlled clash” cannot be ruled out.


Of course, China sees enhanced US political and military actions as purposely confrontational and designed to heighten overall tensions. This includes in particular the stepped-up frequency of provocative US freedom-of-navigation operations and military intelligence probes.7


In this situation, implementation of this “new” policy could be an extreme provocation to which China would find it difficult to resist responding in like manner. Yet a common thread among US analysts is the prediction that the statement “paves the way for the US to take stronger actions to challenge China’s assertive moves in the sea.” Indeed, many seem to hope that if China continues its aggressive actions, the US will intervene with sanctions and, if necessary, force.8 Some even suggest that the US “conduct patrols to challenge or expel fishing boats or oil and gas exploration vessels operating in other states’ exclusive economic zones.”9


One thing is clear. If the US tries to use force to implement the specifics of Pompeo’s statement, or if rival claimants test US verbal backing by militarily challenging China, tensions and dangerous incidents, intended or not, will increase. Yet the US is pressing on. It seems to be using the territorial and maritime disputes between China and Southeast Asian claimants as an opportunity and excuse to increase its military presence there. In doing so, it hopes to encourage them to “stand up” to China and thus irrevocably draw some to its side in its contest with Beijing.


But it is not clear that China’s rival claimants would welcome such US military intervention.10 A recent incident was revealing. On April 18, a Chinese survey ship accompanied by coast guard and maritime militia vessels approached a disputed area where a drill ship — the West Capella — was operating under contract to Malaysia’s national oil company, Petronas, on Malaysia’s claimed continental shelf. The US sent warships to the vicinity, apparently without invitation, consultation or notification.11Malaysia requires prior consent for foreign military activities in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) — a requirement that the US does not recognize and has previously challenged with freedom of navigation operations. As the US warships steamed toward Malaysia’s EEZ, its decision makers could not be sure whether the US was coming to their aid, or challenging their maritime claims. In the aftermath of this incident, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said, “While international law guarantees the freedom of navigation, the presence of warships and vessels in the South China Sea has the potential to increase tensions that in turn may result in miscalculations which may affect peace, security and stability in the region.”12


Indeed, other than by Vietnam — and its support remains in question — it is doubtful that backing up the statement’s specifics with the threat of force will be welcomed in Southeast Asia. Many states there are already deeply worried about the US projection of power in the region. They see it as unnecessarily risking conflict that will cause them harm. In October 2018, after a near collision between a US warship executing a freedom of navigation operation and a Chinese warship opposing it, Ng Eng Hen, Singapore’s defense minister, said that “Some of the [US-China] 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.”13


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said “the threat of confrontation and trouble in the waterway came from outside the region.”14 Then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad argued that “big warships [in the South China Sea] may cause incidents, and that will lead to tension.”15 More recently, in response to Pompeo’s statement, Foreign Minister Hishammuddin called for the big powers “to avoid military posturing.”16 Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has said that it is “important for ASEAN to keep sending out messages to great powers involved in the dispute to maintain regional peace and stability in the South China Sea.”17 Considering previous relevant statements by high-level Indonesian officials, this appeared to be a plea to both China and the US to exercise more restraint in their military posturing. Many of these states have economic and long-term geopolitical reasons that make them reluctant to confront China militarily — even with US backing. As such, this policy clarification overestimates possible supportive responses from Southeast Asian countries.


There are other potential drawbacks to implementing the policy. Shahriman Lockman, of Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, has said if the US does implement the policy, it will be a “double-edged sword.” It will have “the effect of both deterring but also potentially escalating matters with China.” For Lockman, “the worst-case scenario is for things to escalate, and then the US gets distracted by something in the Middle East, and we get saddled with more Chinese ships in our waters.”18


Another negative consequence is that Pompeo’s statement may prompt one or more Southeast Asian nations to lead the US into conflict with China. As former US National Security Council official Michael Green has warned, it could “tempt smaller states to do things that could provoke Beijing.”19


Already there has been some dangerously confusing follow-up to the statement. The US ambassador to Vietnam, Daniel Kritenbrink, signed a memorandum of understanding that the US will “support its fishers against intimidation.” Did he mean that the US military would actually intervene on behalf of Vietnam? If he did, and it includes its fishing around the China-occupied Paracels, this could be interpreted as an expression of support for Vietnam’s claim to sovereignty over the islands and their waters. This would likely be crossing a “red line” and could lead to a clash or worse. It may not be what was meant, but it is an example of what can happen if the US goes down this road.


Indeed, author Bill Hayton, a perennial China critic, warns that “using power to protect legitimate rights without crossing the line into war will be a tough challenge for the US and its friends, partners, and allies in Southeast Asia.”20 He recognizes that “there would be little domestic support for the US shedding blood to protect someone else’s oil, nor much Southeast Asian support for the country using the region to fight a kinetic battle with China.”


But the bottom line for the US and its would-be partners and allies is that China may not be cowed by a show of force. Beijing seems increasingly unconvinced “that America has the will to actually go to war with China.”21 This will increasingly be the case as China’s domestic nationalism and military and economic power grow and America continues to be distracted by domestic issues while its foreign policy is in disarray. China’s body politic has become increasingly nationalistic and any national loss of face such as a US-forced public climbdown could trigger a crossed “red line” response. Indeed, some usual advocates of a more muscular US response to China in the South China Sea think such an action “might lead China to double down out of a sense of nationalism.”22


Despite these drawbacks, some claim that the policy statement by Pompeo is “smart.”23 But it creates a dilemma for the US that it had been avoiding through ambiguity. It may have thought that by rhetorically backing China’s rival claimants, it would convince them that US interest went beyond freedom of navigation for its military. But now the cat is out of the bag. The US must either back up its bold words and risk military conflict with China — or lose more credibility regarding its staying power and commitment to friends, allies and the region. Worse, it makes US policy implementation subject to the unilateral provocative actions of others — such as Vietnam. This is not “smart” policy.


Although more incidents and even clashes are likely, neither China nor the US want war. China is simply not yet ready for a broad armed conflict with the US and its allies, and the US is distracted by domestic difficulties and isolationist tendencies. Moreover, the fact that both are nuclear powers diminishes the likelihood of wide military conflict. But the absence of war is not “peace” in the broader and more stable sense of the term.


In such an unstable “peace” there is always the danger of accidentally — or purposely — crossing the line. And there is also always the chance that one of the increasingly frequent close encounters between their respective military assets could spiral out of control.


Therefore, some steps should be taken to avoid a worst-case scenario. The ASEAN countries could contribute to conflict avoidance by individually or preferably multilaterally expressing opposition to the US and Chinese military presence and posturing, as well as resisting their use by one against the other.


In response to Pompeo’s statement, ASEAN foreign ministers reaffirmed their intent to maintain Southeast Asia as “a region of peace, security, neutrality and stability” amid “growing uncertainties resulting from the changing geopolitical dynamics in the regional and global landscape.”24  


But so far, the voicing of their concerns has not had the desired effect. Nevertheless, an escalating chorus of concern could help distribute the burden of confronting the big powers. If more potentially affected countries were to voice their concerns privately or publicly, it might help reduce the potential for conflict and confrontation.


Another small step forward would be for the main protagonists to improve their military-to-military communication so that neither side is surprised or threatened to the point that an unintended clash could occur. They need to make crystal clear their respective redlines and the reasons for them. Communication mechanisms already exist, and, if there is at least mutual desire to avoid conflict, reinvigorating them would seem a logical step. US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has expressed a desire to visit China soon to “establish the systems necessary for crisis communication.”25 China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi agrees that a discussion is needed on a “list of issues that need proper management.”26 There are already agreed codes of conduct for unplanned encounters at sea and in the air but these have not prevented incidents in part because the actions that provoked the incidents were neither unintended nor in a general sense unplanned.


If effective, such small steps could over time lead to a larger tactical bargain. China might refrain from further occupation, construction and “militarization” on its claimed features. It might also agree not to undertake any provocative action such as occupying and building on Scarborough Shoal, harassing other claimants in disputed areas in the Spratlys and around Scarborough Shoal and declaring an air defense identification zone over disputed waters. The US, in turn, would decrease or would cease altogether its freedom-of-navigation operations targeting China’s claims there and its “close-in” intelligence probes.


This might provide the diplomatic space necessary to tackle the fundamental issues. In the end, for a stable peace, both will have to share. The US will have to share power with China in the region. And China will have to share the South China Sea’s resources and their management with its rival claimants. But this is a long way off — if ever.


In the short term, Pompeo’s policy “clarification” only made the situation worse. But it may well have been an unnecessary last gasp of a dying administration. Its continuity, let alone follow-up, are in serious doubt. At this critical time in world affairs, the US has better things to do with its military than police the EEZs of so-called friends halfway around the world — and perhaps provoke a conflict with a great power in the process.


1 www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3096978/south-china-sea-chinese-military-told-not-fire-first-shot

2 www.state.gov/u-s-position-on-maritime-claims-in-the-south-china-sea/

3 www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905-2.pdf

4 www.express.co.uk/news/world/1316894/US-news-China-relations-Mike-Pompeo-warning-CCP-latest-South-China-Sea-Huawei


5 johnmenadue.com/why-australias-strategic-situation-is-far-worse-than-we-think-afr-6-7-20/

6 www.theaustralian.com.au/world/the-times/us-would-lose-any-war-with-china-in-pacific/news-story/989d5832d6460e3bd7bbab4ca983967b

7 www.nytimes.com/2020/07/27/opinion/pompeo-south-china-sea.html; e.vnexpress.net/news/news/us-shows-signs-of-more-comprehensive-south-china-sea-strategy-experts-4133215.html; news.usni.org/2020/07/21/secdef-esper-u-s-will-keep-up-the-pace-of-south-china-sea-freedom-of-navigation-operations

8 www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3093512/south-china-sea-will-rival-claimants-be-emboldened-us-policy; www.msn.com/en-sg/news/world/the-us-is-taking-on-beijing-over-the-south-china-sea-but-asean-remains-cautious/ar-BB16JSRM?li=BBr8Cnr

9 warontherocks.com/2020/07/what-options-are-on-the-table-in-the-south-china-sea/

10 www.indepthnews.net/index.php/the-world/usa-and-canada/3734-southeast-asia-rejects-confrontation-to-tame-increasingly-aggressive-china

11 warontherocks.com/2020/05/learning-in-the-south-china-sea-the-u-s-response-to-the-west-capella-standoff/

12 www.reuters.com/article/malaysia-china-southchinasea-idUKL3N2CB18I

13 www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/asean-nations-express-concern-over-us-china-tensions-in-south-10847704

14 www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2173174/south-china-sea-asean-beijing-continue-wrk-towarss-code

15 www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/mahathir-tells-us-no-warships-in-asean-waters-but-small-patrol-boats-are-fine

16 www.benarnews.org/english/news/malaysian/South-China-Sea-07152020152750.html#:~:text=Malaysia%20on%20Wednesday%20called%20for,claims%20in%20the%20contested%20waterway

17 jakartaglobe.id/news/indonesia-encourages-asean-china-to-resume-south-china-sea-coc-negotiation

18 foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/15/pompeo-south-china-sea-nine-dash-line-unclos/

19 sg.news.yahoo.com/beijing-claims-south-china-sea-184834869.html ;

20 foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/15/pompeo-south-china-sea-nine-dash-line-unclos/

21 www.straitstimes.com/opinion/red-line-in-the-south-china-sea

22 www.csis.org/analysis/how-significant-new-us-south-china-sea-policyI


24 news.cgtn.com/news/2020-08-09/ASEAN-FMs-vow-to-maintain-Southeast-Asia-as-region-of-neutrality — SO9FhXLYqI/index.html

25 www.theepochtimes.com/pacific-exercises-at-record-levels-but-us-not-in-search-of-conflict-esper_3432339.html

26 www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1796302.shtml

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

Link: https://www.globalasia.org/v15no3/feature/the-folly-of-americas-new-policy-on-the-south-china-sea_mark-j-valencia