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Wishful Thinking Won’t Deter The Drift Toward Danger In The South China Sea

2020-06-02 09:33:52       source:NISCSS

May 2, 2020

As the US-China conflict in the South China Sea trends toward disaster, some analysts are responding with wishful thinking and unrealistic proposals. 


In the Philippines, Antonio Carpio, retired Supreme Court Justice and virulent critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s pro- China policy, is now advocating joint patrols between the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam to “show a united front against China.”  He adds that if this does not deter China then the Philippines should join US patrols.


But if Carpio’s suggestion is implemented, the likely results will be confrontation and violent conflict– with the Philippines and any other Southeast Asian countries that join it winding up on the losing end. Duterte’s National Security Advisor Hermogenes Esperon said he agreed with the concept of joint patrols – but not as a method to deter China.  “If what Justice Caprio was thinking is to wage war, he should just leave it to the defense [establishment].  Moreover, Malaysia is highly unlikely to join such a futile folly. 


Indeed, Carpio’s suggestion seems more driven by desperation than reason.


Others grasp at straws of hope that the ‘powers that be’ will change course.  For example, perennial critic of China – – and President Rodrigo Duterte’s approach to it – – Richard Heydarian, clearly hopes Duterte’s decision to abrogate the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement will be rescinded or mitigated. In seeming desperation, he extols the request to the Supreme Court of some Senators to “issue an order” to “refer [Duterte’s] Notice of Withdrawal to the Senate of the Philippines for its concurrence.”  But this is highly unlikely to succeed because Duterte claims that he has the authority to unilaterally abrogate the agreement. 


Recently an Australian warship joined exercises with US warships in disputed waters of the South China Sea. The US Navy hyped the event proclaiming that it demonstrated “the same interest in ensuring freedom of navigation. Singaporean South China Sea pundit Collin Koh chimed in saying that he believed that Australian forces will remain active in the South China Sea, conducting its routine naval presence. As relatively rare is that the warship exercised with US warships in the South China Sea.


But any hope that Australia will join US Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) or even conduct their own is very wishful thinking. In February 2018 when the U.S. pressured Australia to join its FONOPs, then Minister of Foreign Affairs Julia Bishop said “If we decide that we need to undertake more exercises in the South China Sea then we’ll do it. But it’s not for other countries *to dictate to Australia and they don’t.”


An Australian FONOP would send an unmistakable political signal that Australia is siding with the U.S. to uphold the existing largely Western-built “international order.”  China is Australia’s most important export market for its raw materials and the second most recipient of Chinese direct investment. As Australian analyst Michael Wesley puts it “We’re facing an uncomfortable fact: that the major source of our economic prosperity is potentially in a position to challenge our most sacred values. It forces us to think about potentially forgoing some of that prosperity to stand up for what we believe in.”  If Australia decides to undertake a FONOP, it must be ready for the economic consequences and it does not appear to be ready to risk that. 


Analysts are also grasping at straws regarding US commitment to the region. The Singaporean pundit Collin Koh said the recent increased U.S. Navy presence in the South China Sea signals Washington’s commitment at a time when some of its forces are disabled by the corona virus.  But this is whistling by the graveyard. Episodic gestures like stepped-up patrols and FONOPs have not stemmed the decline of confidence among Southeast Asian leaders of US support in a conflict with China. This loss of confidence accelerated when the Trump administration withdrew from the US proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) economic pact.  In October 2016 Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in reference to the US withdrawal “Now you say ‘I will walk away, that I do not believe in this deal.’  How can anyone believe in you anymore?” At the time, Trump seemed to be willing to make a deal with China—if China helped restrain North Korea, the U.S. would lessen pressure on China in the South China Sea. But more generally, to Southeast Asia nations, Trump’s “America First” mantra feels like ‘you are on your own.’


Now the U.S. has redeployed its frontline bombers from Guam to the US mainland ending the *’Continuous Bomber Presence’ that it touted as a reassurance to allies in Asia. The facts that this was a strategic move to a more defensible position in the event of war – and that the US has continued these sorties from its mainland were lost on these leaders.  Indeed, they are increasingly convinced that China is replacing the U.S. as the regional hegemon and that the U.S. is unlikely to come to their aid in a showdown with China over their claims in the South China Sea.


The South China Sea situation has drawn the attention of the Pacific Community Initiative –a group of “thought leaders’ from the U.S., China and Southeast Asia. But most of their recommendations are unrealistic and have been proposed –and rejected–before. Perhaps the backing of these ‘thought leaders’ will help –but I doubt it.  For example, they propose a US-China bargain on military operations in the South China Sea. But a similar bargain has been previously suggested and ignored. 


In that proposal, China would cease further construction and “militarization” on its claimed and occupied features; agree not to occupy and build on Scarborough Shoal; and agree to not declare an air defense identification zone over the Spratlys.  In return the U.S. would decrease or cease altogether its provocative FONOPs there and its “close-in” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes. But the military to military trust deficit has been too great for such a bargain.  Moreover, neither believes that the other will keep its word – the basic necessity for a lasting agreement. The U.S. believes China wants America out of Asia and China is convinced that the US wants to contain it and thwart its deserved rise.


The ‘thought leaders’ formulation of the bargain includes that Beijing affirm that the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is “not intended to regulate surface maritime transit.”  But this is an odd formulation and ignores the fact that China objects to what it perceives as the US abuse of the right of freedom of navigation to threaten its security. China believes that some US military activities – – like its FONOPs and ISR probes – – violate the peaceful purpose and use provisions of UNCLOS, as well as its UNCLOS EEZ resource rights and environmental obligations. In particular, China alleges that the U.S. is not abiding by its obligation to pay the UNCLOS required due regard to its rights and duties as a coastal state.


But these are only details.  The fundamental premise of the Pacific Community Initiative is that both Beijing and Washington would “unambiguously accept that the other is a regional power” and that neither wants to exclude the other from Asia. But in their 2013 Sunnylands summit, President Xi Jinping proposed to then President Barack Obama “a new model of great power relations” that implied equality and shared responsibility in world affairs. The U.S. has essentially rejected it – – presumably because it believes it is the world’s only ‘exceptional’ nation.  The U.S. has no history of willingness to truly share power. To expect it to change its belief in itself as an exceptional nation and do so now is unrealistic.


Nevertheless, if the U.S. wants to avoid direct conflict or at least postpone it, it must accommodate or at least appear to accommodate to some degree China’s international interests and aspirations – in Asia and, in particular, in the South China Sea. On what issues, when, how, and how much are questions for US ‘thought leaders’ to ponder.

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