MARK J VALENCIA. To Reduce Tensions in the South China Sea, the Ball is in America’s Court

The solution to the South China Sea imbroglio lies with the US, not China.

Analysts outside China are now arguing that it would be in China’s long term strategic interests to back off and compromise with its rival claimants in the South China Sea. They suggest that China would gain strategic advantage by managing the disputes without coercion and entering “equitable resource sharing deals with other claimants”. By doing so China would prove that it is “a responsible power and not trying to revise the international order”. Then with its economic and cultural attraction it could “peel away US partners in the region.” In other words, all China has to do to achieve its strategic goals in the South China Sea is to ‘play nice’.

This argument ignores the strategic context and the core problem – US meddling in the issues. The US and China see each other as an existential threat. The US has publicly declared China a “strategic competitor” and a “revisionist” nation. It believes that the U.S. and China are engaged in “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” in the Indo–Pacific region.

China believes that the US wants to contain and constrain its rightful rise and thereby continue its hegemony in the region and the world. For China, the South China Sea is a “natural shield for its national security.” Moreover, it hosts its vital sea lanes of communication that it believes the US could and would disrupt in a conflict. Even more important, it provides relative ‘sanctuary’ for its second strike nuclear submarines.

The disputes between China and other claimants in the South China Sea have become pawns in this larger US-China ‘great game’ for dominance in Asia..

The US has stepped up its military presence in the South China Sea in part to make China cease its “bullying” of its rival claimants. But it is not ‘backing’ China’s rivals out of some high universal principle. In a Machiavellian move, the US is using these disputes as an excuse for its ramped up military presence in the hope that by doing so it will get then to ‘stand up’ to China and thus draw some to its side.

The US has also inserted itself into the China–ASEAN negotiations regarding a Code of Conduct for behavior in the South China Sea. The US would probably rather see no code of conduct than one not in its interest. So it has pitted some ASEAN members against one another hindering agreement.

The U.S. also tries to justify its Freedom of Navigation Operations by implying that China is threatening commercial freedom of navigation. The US portrays itself as its defender. But China has never threatened commercial navigation. It does object to US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes along its coasts that are the real reason for US concern with ‘freedom of navigation’.

With the growing US threat to its nuclear submarines, China’s occupied South China Sea features have become critical to its defense. It is building up its submarine detection capabilities to neutralize US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in the South China Sea and thus enhance the survivability of China’s nuclear submarines in the early stages of a conflict.

Some argue that China’s intention in building and “militarizing” its occupied ‘features’ in the South China Sea is to intimidate other claimants to the point that they will lose confidence that the US can or has the will to protect their interests and thus “undermine America’s role as a regional security provider.” If so, until the US meddling ceases, China has little incentive to compromise with its rivals rather than coerce them into its camp.

China may think that if it compromises, it would not really change anything. The U.S. would continue to meddle with other aspects of the China–ASEAN member relationship – debt trap; human rights; cyber thefts; whatever tools it can find to think that “magnanimity” on the part of China would advance China’s interest in the face of a US policy of malevolent Machiavellian manipulation is wishful thinking.

Because of the role of China’s outposts in the US-China strategic contest, China will not surrender its territorial claims nor abandon its bases. But the disputes involve more than just claims to territory. Even if these claims could somehow be put aside – perhaps as the status quo

A much longer and different version of this piece appeared in the Asia Times.


Mark J. Valencia is an internationally known maritime policy analyst focused on Asia and currently Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

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5 Responses to MARK J VALENCIA. To Reduce Tensions in the South China Sea, the Ball is in America’s Court

  1. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    I would dispute the claim that the US and China sees each other as existential threats. That may be the rhetoric we hear from the US, but the reality is that the US and China are partners and have many common interests.

    China has not engaged in any rhetoric that paints the US as an existential threat. The simplest explanation for this behaviour is that China does not regard the US as an existential threat. At most, China regards the US’s presence in East Asia the way the US regards Europe’s presence in the New World.

    As for whether China is an existential to the US, this only makes sense if the US regards threats to its hegemonic status as “existential”. Why would China want to destroy the US the way the US tries to destroy Iran and Cuba? The US is a market for China’s production.

    China will achieve its development goals one way or another, with or without help from the West. It will just take longer. China should remain confident in the legitimacy if its development goals, both for itself and the rest of the developing world, including the BRI project. It is right that China pays close attention to external critique of the BRI, but the overall goal seems entirely legitimate. I hope China succeeds even if the development of the non-Western world implies the relative decline of the Western world.

    • Avatar Kien Choong says:

      Commentators should be careful about uncritically repeating claims that the US and China are existential threats to each other. This is objectively wrong, and if this sort of beliefs persist, they may end up becoming self-fulfilling.

      So, commentators, please don’t uncritically repeat unsubstantiated claims! Think independently, for the sake of global peace!

  2. Avatar Gavin O'Brien says:

    A sound analysis Mark. Unfortunately with Trump at the reins in the U.S. The dispute will only grow as POTUS comes closer to the November election.Trump shows no common sense when dealing with China. Australia would do well to keep right out of the dispute as it is not in our interests.

  3. Avatar Teow Loon Ti says:

    Your analysis is spot-on. I too believe that China’s annexation of the Paracels and Spratly islands in the South China Sea is for strategic reasons. It is silly to claim that China is “threatening” commercial freedom of navigation in the region. China is dependent on trade with the SE Asian region and beyond for its continued prosperity and its strive to lift the rest of its population out of poverty. The US and the Australian Foreign Minister could do better coming up with a more logical argument or imagined scenario to pin something ugly on the Chinese. Many of the embers of ASEAN such as Singapore and Thailand have a leaning towards the US. Many have disputes with China over these islands. Yet they deal diplomatically with China because they understand that their economic well being is deeply meshed with that of China’s. Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong often expresses a dilemma similar to Australia’s regarding the choice between the US and China; but his approach to the dilemma is a much more diplomatic one.
    Teow Loon Ti

    • Avatar Jeff Shi says:

      Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong is a much wiser man than any sitting and passing PM, by a mile.

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