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

May 27, 2020

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.

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