A very distinguished unofficial “task force” of US-China experts has issued a rather alarming regarding the China threat to US security overall and in the South China Sea in particular. I certainly defer to the group’s expertise regarding the overall picture and the exceedingly complex US-China relationship. However, assuming that the group does not intend to provoke a military conflict, I respectfully disagree with both its characterization of the situation in the South China Sea and its recommended way forward.
The co-chair of the task force was Susan Shirk, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. She said the complexity of the lies in the “political tsunami in Washington against the China threat”. Indeed, given the current pessimistic political mood in the US government regarding China, it is not surprising that the report delineates China as a possible threat to US security — and that the current US security strategy to counter this threat is “defective”. What is surprising — even alarming — is the report’s rather nationalistic tone and militaristic recommendations, especially regarding the South China Sea.
The group suggests that the US pressures China to comply with “global norms”. But China and others think that the current “global norms” were largely established by the practice of the major powers at the time — and that they preferentially benefit and reflect their values and security interests. They perceive that the continued dominance of these powers depends on the continuation of these “norms”. But in their view, these “norms” are not perpetual and immutable but constantly evolving as nations rise and fall — as we are now witnessing.
More worrying, the group seems to agree with the proposition that when the US “resists”, China “often chooses not to escalate”, thus demonstrating “the limits of Beijing’s for risk.” Such thinking and actions could lead to dangerous miscalculation. As China’s power and confidence grows, so may its “appetite for risk”.
The report makes much of China’s actions in the South China Sea as an indication of its assertive efforts to project power and influence in Asia as well as its alleged hostile intentions. It accuses China of a litany of political and legal sins in the South China Sea — both actual and potential. To be sure China has broken “rules” there — as have other claimants and perhaps the US as well.
When it comes to potential sins, the report conflates commercial and military freedom of navigation (FON). It says China’s “militarization” of the features it occupies “can be used to challenge the principles of freedom of navigation, which is crucial to American security interests” and to hamper “surveillance activities”. It urges the US to insist “on the right of the international community to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters”. It concludes that because of China’s “militarization” of some features, “the idea of an operational sanctuary for US forces in Asia is gone”.
First of all, it is misleading to use the FON argument to justify aggressive US actions there. There is no threat from China to FON for commercial vessels and it is very unlikely that there will be one in peacetime. However, there are indeed stark legal and political/strategic differences between the two as to what US military activities are allowed in, on and under waters within China’s jurisdiction. These differences are based on their respective interpretations of relevant provisions in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — that the US has not ratified. Moreover, China has not objected to warships from any nation passing through the South China Sea. What it does object to is warships and warplanes on missions targeting its claims, or worse, its military secrets. In its eyes they are violating China’s laws and the Convention as well as threatening China’s security.
As for FON in “international waters”, there is no such legal entity. There are various jurisdictional zones stipulated in UNCLOS, such as the 12 nautical mile (nm) territorial sea, the 200nm Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and beyond that the high seas. Each of these zones has its own regimes regarding navigation. For example, vessels including warships sailing in foreign EEZs must “pay due regard to the rights [and duties] of the coastal state”. But there is a disagreement as to what this means specifically. The proximate cause of the increasing dangerous incidents between China and the US in the South China Sea is that both are using their military to enforce their respective interpretations. Indeed, in China’s view, the US is trying to unilaterally enforce a treaty and an arbitration decision under its auspices although it is a party to neither and has little legitimacy in doing so.
Instead of recognizing the inevitability of China’s rise and the need for the US to get ahead of the curve by negotiating compromises and a sharing of power as Joseph Nye suggests, the group recommends a likely road to Armageddon.
Regarding the “threat” in the South China Sea from China’s “militarization” of some of its occupied features, much is possible, including the once threatened of China’s occupied features or a blockade of the Malacca Strait.. And even if it were so that the US is losing an “” — and some have argued otherwise — such blatant hegemonic ambitions are alarming.
The report recommends that the US publicly “call out Chinese practices and firmly stand against China when it conducts itself in ways harmful to US interests”. It says the appropriate response to this particular “threat” is to step up the US military presence to include “frequent, regular freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) to challenge attempts by any state to treat international waters as territorial seas”. The US military is already doing so with its FONOPs and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes implicitly backed by threat of use of force.
But the report argues that Washington’s military measures so far “have not been sufficient to maintain the gap between US and Chinese capabilities that would be necessary to assure the security of the American position in Asia and the security of US allies in perpetuity”. It recommends that the US go beyond its already provocative FONOPs and undertake displays of power in the South China Sea that “would serve to remind China, as well as US allies, that the US military has unique joint war-fighting capabilities, and that the US leadership has the necessary will to use them to overcome aggression”. This display of power could include .
The group seems to agree with US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral who said recently that “the US has to consider not only its responses but also how it can act first”, in the context of the need for a more “muscular” effort to enforce international laws regarding operating at sea. Indeed, the group seems to be advocating threats of use of force, which is a violation of both UNCLOS and the UN Charter. Unfortunately, both countries are already doing this. Indeed, as the report says, the US and Chinese militaries are “threatening each other more seriously than before”.
The report casts China as the instigator of the South China Sea incidents. It says that the American…augmentation of its force posture in Asia” is only a response to China’s military modernization. But it is debatable as to who is responding to whom and why. Regardless of “who started it”, the two are obviously locked in a security dilemma that is not likely to end soon or well. Implementing the report’s security recommendations would contribute to this dilemma and its downward spiraling cycle of mistrust, suspicion, action and reaction.
Aside from upping the military tension in its relationship with China, this would be markedly insensitive to the concerns of Southeast Asian nations. Many Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members clearly worry that the burgeoning conflict between the two — exacerbated by the US’ more confrontational policy and actions in the South China Sea — will be destabilizing and dangerous to their national security. Yet the report ignores their concerns and urges the US to “enhance its coordination with friends and allies rather than act alone”. However, they may well think that the report’s recommendations are a recipe for confrontation and conflict at their political, economic and military expense.
For example, the report recommends that the US request key Asian allies to provide “expeditionary air and maritime logistics sites and enhanced air/maritime/ground-based long range strike capabilities” as well as “cruise and ballistic missile capabilities to defend US airbases located in host nations”. Of course, if they do so, they will likely suffer economic and political consequences and may even become targets themselves in a conflict. The report observes that “to encourage such enhanced cooperation, the United States needs to convince the political leadership of key allies and partners in Asia that the US strategy is viable and that the United States is politically committed to it”. Indeed, but it may be too late. Under mounting pressure from both China and the US, many nations in the region are already hedging between the two and some like Cambodia and Laos have already chosen sides.
I realize that the group focused on ensuring that US interests and values will continue to dominate Asia and that will depend on continued US security hegemony there and in particular in the South China Sea. Yet the report still seems overly US centric and militaristic in both tenor and tone. From such a distinguished group, I would have expected more wisdom, realism and balance, as well as a longer term and more internationalist view of history and the future.
Instead of recognizing the inevitability of China’s rise and the need for the US to get ahead of the curve by negotiating compromises and a sharing of power as suggests, the group recommends a likely road to Armageddon. US policy towards China needs to recognize and reckon with the realistic future. It must address today’s and tomorrow’s reality of China’s growing power, influence and appeal. This will continue and slowly erode the US’ role as the sole leader and arbiter of “the international order”, at least in Asia. If the US wants to avoid military conflict with China, it should accept this reality and try to influence the transition to power sharing and its outcome by negotiating the manner, pace and substance. This could begin in the South China Sea.