Washington insists it will defend the “rules-based order” in the face of China’s increasing belligerence, but it may be raising expectations too high.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s truncated visit to South-East Asia has increased the likelihood of a US-China military clash in the South China Sea. Indeed, Blinken basically threw down the gauntlet to China and promised perhaps more than the US can or wants to deliver.
In Indonesia — the de facto leader of ASEAN — he reiterated that the US would “defend the rules-based order”. Some say that is because that “order” asymmetrically favours its form of government.
Blinken added that “we and other countries, including South China Sea claimants, will continue to push back” against China’s violations.
He then disingenuously declared that China’s threat to navigation in the South China Sea could hinder the movement of US$3 trillion in annual commerce. This is nonsense and he knows it. China has never threatened commercial freedom of navigation. This US red herring is a cover for its military’s “freedom” to spy and threaten. This belligerent posture may have scored political points but it also set up situations in which the US could justify or be drawn into a military clash.
China has become a convenient foil for US hegemony in the region due to its increasingly aggressive and blatant violations of the “international order” in the South China Sea. As China shows its hand and bares its teeth, rival claimants are recoiling in fear and issuing diplomatic protests that seem to fall on deaf ears. The US is taking political advantage of China’s actions by criticising it and verbally supporting the “victims”. But in doing so, the US is making it more difficult to dodge or refuse requests for military help from friends, partners and allies that are being bullied by China. Indeed, they may well expect the US to put its muscle where its mouth is.
Several scenarios illustrate how the US could get dragged into a clash not directly of its own making. Say an element of the Philippines military — perhaps going rogue — provokes a clash with China’s military. The Philippines demands the US honour its commitments under their 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty and come to its defence in the event of an “armed attack on public vessels”. The US then has to choose between a military clash with China or losing its credibility in the region.
A version of this scenario almost became reality recently. On November 16, Chinese coast guard vessels used water cannons to prevent the Philippines from resupplying its troops on Second Thomas Shoal. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said its coast guard had upheld China’s “territorial sovereignty”. After the Philippines vigorously protested, China allowed a second attempt to pass unmolested. But it then demanded that the Philippines remove its purposely beached wreck on the reef harbouring its troops. Moreover China reportedly imposed two conditions on future Philippine resupply missions: no increase in troops stationed there or provision of high-powered weapons, and no transfer of materials to repair the vessel or build on the reef.
These acts and demands violate the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea because Second Thomas Shoal is submerged at high tide and cannot be claimed as territory by any nation. It is located on the Philippines’ legitimate continental shelf and within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and thus lies within Philippine jurisdiction.
China’s actions and statements are an in-your-face violation of the US-backed international order. But in this instance the US demurred, apparently arguing that the use of water cannons against chartered civilian supply boats did not meet the treaty threshold of an “armed attack on public vessels”. But it cannot demur forever without losing credibility.
Similar situations could easily arise with China’s other rival claimants. In April 2020, the US navy came to the aid of Malaysia when China tried to intimidate its contracted drilling vessel West Capella operating in Malaysia’s legitimate EEZ. US warships conducted exercises near where a Chinese government survey ship was operating with an escort of several Chinese coast guard ships. US Pacific Fleet commander Admiral John Aquilino said “the Chinese Communist Party must end its pattern of bullying South-East Asians out of offshore oil, gas, and fisheries”.
Blinken delivered a similar message of support to Malaysia. But just two months ago Malaysia protested anew against the presence of a Chinese survey vessel and coast guard escorts in its legitimate EEZ. The vessels were operating in and – according to some – harassing the national oil company’s drilling operations in Malaysia’s Kasawari gas field off Sarawak.
Similarly Chinese survey and coast guard vessels have “harassed” Indonesia’s drilling operations in the Natuna Sea. On the eve of Blinken’s visit to Jakarta, the State Department declared that “we support Indonesia’s strong efforts to safeguard its maritime rights and stand up to PRC aggression in its EEZ around Natuna”. Again, depending on Malaysian and Indonesian reactions to China’s provocations, the US may be pressured to “send in the marines”.
Other scenarios involve a clash arising from US Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) challenging China’s claims in the South China Sea. In October 2018, during a FONOP, there was a near-collision between the US destroyer Decatur and a Chinese warship. The Pentagon accused the Chinese navy of “using an unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre” forcing the Decatur to change course to avoid a collision. China believes these FONOPs are a threat to its sovereignty, integrity and security, yet the US continues to push its luck.
Then there is the constant danger of another serious international incident involving US close-in air, surface and subsurface intelligence-gathering probes along China’s coasts. China complains they are a threat to its security and sends warships and warplanes to warn them off. In 2001 a US EP-3 intelligence collection plane and a Chinese fighter jet collided off Hainan. The Chinese jet crashed into the sea killing the pilot and the damaged EP-3 made an emergency landing on Hainan. The region and the world held their collective breath while cooler heads negotiated the release of the crew. There have been several near-misses since then and it seems it may be only a matter of time before another such serious incident.
These are just some of the scenarios in which the US could get dragged into a military conflict with China in the South China Sea. It should carefully weigh whether such commitment of its and its allies’ blood and treasure is really worth the defence of its version of “the international order” rather than negotiating a compromise that also integrates China’s interests. If not, it had better tell them that its military support is contingent on their not provoking a clash. Ambiguity cuts both ways. It can serve as a deterrent to provocative behaviour by China, but also by US allies and friends who may expect the US to automatically come rushing to their rescue.
Portions of this piece first appeared in Asia Times.