An uneasy rules-based order: China’s restraint in South China Sea has limits

Jan 13, 2022
Scott Morrison nuclear submarine announcement uk us AUKUS
Scott Morrison, flanked by Boris Johnson and Joe Biden, announces the AUKUS agreement. (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The implementation of AUKUS and increased US intelligence probes threaten China’s nuclear submarines that are its deterrent against a strike by the US.

US military superiority in China’s ‘near waters’ like the South China Sea is highly questionable. Yet the US continues to push China — and its luck there. So far, China has shown considerable restraint in the face of increasingly provocative US military challenges to its claims and defences. But such restraint has its limits.

As China’s military power inexorably expands, the South China Sea has become a frontier of military friction with US forward deployed forces and probes. Globally, US military power is clearly superior to that of China.  But in China’s ‘near waters’ like the South China Sea, its superiority is highly questionable. Yet the US continues to push China — and its luck there. So far, China has shown considerable restraint in the face of increasingly provocative US military challenges to its claims and defences. But such restraint has its limits. Indeed, the US may be underestimating China’s anti-access, area denial capability covering the South China Sea — and its political will to use it if it deems it strategically or politically necessary.

From China’s perspective, the US has framed the struggle in existential terms. President Joe Biden believes that it is a contest that will determine the superiority of systems and ideologies — liberal democracy versus communist authoritarianism. To win that contest in the South China Sea, the US is now building coalitions of those countries willing to help it prevent China from reaching its goal of at least regional dominance.

This includes the Quad and AUKUS. The Quad – short for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — is a coalition of the US, Australia, India, and China’s arch enemy, Japan, that wants to maintain a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP). The Quad leaders “champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas”.  This is code for calling out what they consider China’s illegitimate claims and actions in the South China Sea.

AUKUS is an agreement between Australia, the UK and the US for the US and the UK to supply nuclear submarine propulsion and underwater drone technology to Australia. A likely major use of these submarines will be to assist the US in neutralizing China’s nuclear submarines in the South China Sea. The agreement also calls for “rotations of US jet fighters and bombers to northern Australia” and for the potential acquisition of “more rotational basing for its submarines in Perth, Western Australia”. So the US will also be increasing its use of Australia as a base for its surveillance and deterrence of China in the South China Sea.

Indeed, the US keeps pushing the envelope and raising the stakes. It has increased the frequency and provocativeness of its military intelligence probes of China’s defences as well as its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) challenging China’s maritime territorial and jurisdictional claims. China believes that these FONOPs are a threat to its sovereignty, integrity and security.

So if China has near peer military capability in at least the northern  South China Sea and it feels threatened by US actions, what is stopping it from acting to mitigate the threats?

A Chinese leading academic Zhang Feng thinks that this restraint is due to a desire not to overreact as it did to the Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’ ; confidence in its ‘strategic leverage’ and economic edge in the region; and its belief that time is on its side to achieve its objectives. But if so, these factors are not static and rapid changes in the status quo could tip the scale towards action.

Indeed, China’s restraint is being severely tested. While not overreacting is a virtue, not acting in certain circumstances could undermine the credibility of its leadership. Looming in the background is China’s increasingly nationalistic body politic and any national loss of face like a forced public climb-down in the South China Sea could trigger a crossed ‘red line’ response.

The Obama Pivot was a general conceptual threat that turned out to be not as urgent or threatening as first thought. But the Biden administration’s ratcheting up of kinetic provocations by US warships and warplanes cannot be ignored indefinitely — politically or militarily.

As for its strategic leverage based on its permanent geographic proximity, the continued US military build-up including the possibility of deploying intermediate range missiles is rapidly eroding this advantage. Moreover the US planning robust economic initiatives to try to erode China’s economic supremacy in the region.

Worse the implementation of AUKUS and increased US intelligence probes now threaten China’s nuclear submarines that are its deterrent against a first strike by the US. Indeed, China may soon reconsider whether time is really on its side to achieve its goals in the region. If it determines that there is an inflection point beyond which the risk of its defeat rises rapidly, it may well decide to act before it loses the advantage it thinks it has.

The Commander of all US forces in the Indo-Pacific Admiral John Aquilino  told the US Congress in March that he believes a Chinese military attack on Taiwan “is much closer to us than most think.” His predecessor Admiral Philip Davidson predicted China could strike within six years. He added that because China’s enhanced military power has reduced the level of US deterrence, “We are accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response,” he said.

Indeed, it seems that it is the US that is in a hurry. It is rapidly hardening and dispersing its forces in the region in order to withstand and discourage such an attack.

It also continues to take political actions that provoke its nationalistic body politic and raises pressure on the leadership to act.

During his recent visit to South-East Asia, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken basically threw down the gauntlet to China. In Jakarta, Blinken reiterated that the US would “defend the rules–based order”. He added that “We and other countries, including South China Sea claimants will continue to push back” against China’s violations thereof. That encourages China’s rival claimants to take sides and is thus both divisive and destabilising.

Given the closing window of opportunity — and the necessity of its leadership to maintain its credibility, China may be forced to act. Indeed, the present uneasy and leaky military standoff may be a deceptive lull before a storm.


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