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The US dream of South China Sea hegemony will only lead to conflict with Beijing

2020-08-04 09:42:32       source:NISCSS

June 30, 2020

Is peace in the South China Sea possible? The answer depends in part on one’s definition of “peace”. If it means simply an absence of war, then the South China Sea is already at peace. It is an unstable and unpredictable peace, though, and therefore dangerous.


If it means an environment free of confrontation and characterised by cooperation, mutual trust and respect, as well as by conduct that is in general compliance with an agreed standard, there is a long way to go. Because of the fundamental and intractable China-US dialectic, the South China Sea may not get to that state – at least in the foreseeable future.


Many analysts, including me, have proposed long-term bargains and short-term stabilising measures, but neither China nor the United States has paid them any heed. The situation has further deteriorated with both parties increasing their military presence in the area, with a corresponding rise in the frequency of incidents.


Nevertheless, direct military conflict between the two is unlikely in the short term. China is simply not ready for armed conflict with the US and its allies, and the US is distracted by domestic difficulties and isolationist tendencies that are likely to get worse before they get better, given the upcoming presidential election.


Although the two seem to have developed a modus operandi that has so far avoided worst-case scenarios, they are clearly on a long-term collision course in the South China Sea. The US has publicly declared China a “strategic competitor” and “revisionist” nation. It believes the two nations are engaged in “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” in the Indo-Pacific region.


A Council on Foreign Relations report says the US military “needs to continue conducting operations in the South China Sea to ensure its readiness in a number of contingencies, including the defence of Australia, Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan”. This is probably the real reason for the US military presence there – to maintain its regional hegemony. China believes the US wants to constrain its rightful rise and thereby continue its hegemony in the region.


The South China Sea is at the crux of their strategic contest. For China, it is a historically vulnerable underbelly that must be turned into a “natural shield for its national security”. It hosts its vital sea lanes of communication that Beijing believes the US could and would disrupt in a conflict.


More importantly, it provides relative sanctuary for its second-strike nuclear submarines that are insurance in the event of a first strike against it – something the US, unlike China, has not disavowed.


Some of the hundreds of US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes in the South China Sea each year focus on detecting, tracking and, if necessary, targeting China’s nuclear submarines.


Given what it perceives to be the growing US threat to its nuclear submarines, Beijing is building up capabilities on some of the features it occupies to neutralise these US operations and enhance the survivability of its nuclear submarines in the early stages of a conflict.


For China, these installations are important to its continued existence. It will not compromise this defence unless and until the US pulls back on its ISR probes.


The US has diverted the narrative from the real issues. It has hyped these installations as a symbol and enabler of China’s aggression against rival claimants and threatened them with warships and warplanes in so-called freedom of navigation operations.


It has also painted China’s objections to and interference with its ISR probes as threats to commercial freedom of navigation. This situation is unstable, and a breach of operational red lines by either side could spiral into conflict.


Many stopgap measures have been attempted and failed. Both President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump have characterised the military-to-military relationship as an aspect that should be stabilising.


There exists on paper a web of communication channels such as a hotline and a consultation agreement – the Maritime Military Consultative Agreement – as well as exchange visits by military leadership.


The two militaries also have memorandums of understanding (MOU) on the Notification of Major Military Activities and on the Rules of Behaviour for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters, which was based on the multilaterally agreed Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.


These channels have seldom been used since 2018 though, and the MOU are ambiguous, subject to different interpretations, non-binding and thus ineffective. There is really no effective firewall between the two militaries in the South China Sea. Moreover, many of the incidents that occur are not really unplanned or unexpected.


Several individual Association of Southeast Asian Nation members, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore have voiced concern about the growing militarisation of the South China Sea. Neither China nor the US has heeded these pleas, though, and the current situation is a slow-motion drift towards confrontation and conflict.


The Asean claimants and Asean as a group are not the main players in maintaining peace. Rather, they are being pressured and manipulated by the big powers to side with one or the other in the battle for the hearts and minds of the region.


The situation will clearly get worse before it gets better. In the end, the US will have to directly or indirectly share power with China, and China will have to share the resources and their management.


These are big asks, and it may take another generation and even localised conflict to realise that this is the only way for a stable and lasting peace to take hold in the South China Sea.

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