Scenarios for the South China Sea :The good, the bad and the downright ugly

With ever more tit-for-tat belligerent rhetoric and military posturing, China and the US seem to be slouching towards a showdown in the South China Sea. What might come next can be captured in three scenarios – good, ugly and bad.

With ever more tit-for–tat belligerent rhetoric and military posturing, China and the US seem to be slouching towards a showdown in the South China Sea. Upping the ante, on 25 August, China fired a vaunted “aircraft-carrier killer” missile into the South China Sea, apparently as a response to the US deployment of aircraft carrier strike groups. This came on the heels of a US U-2 spy plane overflight of Chinese naval exercises in the Bohai Sea in violation of a “no fly zone”. The US followed up China’s missile test by deploying a ballistic missile-detection aircraft to spy on China’s military drills in the South China Sea.

This all came in the midst of a sharp downward spiral in overall relations, and in the aftermath of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s policy statement on the South China Sea that increased the possibility of a clash there.

Although most of the content of Pompeo’s statement was not new, its tone was more confrontational than before and implementing its specifics could be downright dangerous.  Pompeo declared that China’s interference with Southeast Asian countries’ fishing or oil exploration and exploitation in their legitimate maritime zones — and its own activities in their zones — are “unlawful” and “bullying“. He assured that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources”.

He then vowed that “We will support countries … who recognize that China has violated their legal territorial claims and maritime claims as well. We will provide them the assistance we can, whether that’s in multilateral bodies, whether that’s in ASEAN, whether that’s through legal responses. We will use all the tools we can…” That presumably includes threat of use of force if necessary. To China, these words are hostile and threatening. The US is now contemplating its follow-up and China is presumably contemplating its responses. What might come next can be captured in three scenarios: the “Good”, the “Ugly” and the “Bad”.

A good scenario

In a “good” scenario, a united ASEAN — or at least a majority thereof — would take a stand against both countries’ military buildup in the Sea and their military posturing therein. China and the US would pull in their horns and start to negotiate their issues in earnest. To build confidence and trust, the US would refrain from use, or threat of use, of force and suspend its military buildup in the region including its freedom-of-navigation operations challenging China’s claims, and its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes targeting China’s defences. China would in turn refrain from bullying its rival claimants and negotiate a modus operandi with them that includes sharing and co-operate management of the resources of the South China Sea. China would also cease further construction and “militarization” on its claimed and occupied features; agree not to occupy and build on Scarborough shoal; and not declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over disputed waters. China and ASEAN would agree on, and abide by, a Code of Conduct that stabilizes the situation.

China and the US would reinvigorate their military communication channels and reaffirm their commitment to abide by the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea and negotiate an Incidents at Sea Agreement. Given this foundation, the US and China would agree to peacefully co-exist and share power in the region.

An ugly scenario

In a scenario at the opposite end of the spectrum, China continues to bully its rival claimants.   One or more claimants appeal to the US for backup. The US — with its credibility at stake — responds with warships and warplanes. China refuses to back down and a clash ensues.

While cooler heads prevent it spiralling out of control, the US-China relationship plunges into a “cold war”, in which ASEAN countries are increasingly pressured to choose sides. US-China incidents at and over the sea become more frequent. Insurance rates for shipping through the region rise significantly. Foreign oil companies suspend their operations citing force majeure, and oil and gas exploration and exploitation beyond near shore waters all but cease. Clashes between foreign fishing fleets and national maritime enforcement agencies become common. Negotiations for a Code of Conduct (COC) collapse and the concept becomes a lost cause. Worse, some choose sides, ASEAN is split, and its role in international affairs in the region becomes irrelevant. In short the South China Sea becomes a sea of anarchy where might makes right.

The two avoid a broad direct conflict only because China is not ready for war with the US and its allies — and the US is distracted by domestic issues. Moreover, they both want to avoid even the possibility of a nuclear exchange. But as China’s power grows and the US’s domestic issues resolve, a reckoning becomes more likely.

The bad

The “Good” and the “Ugly” scenarios are at opposite ends of a spectrum. There is no “Great” because the entire spectrum of possibilities has moved towards the “Ugly”. The more likely scenario is “Bad” — more of the same and extensions thereof — not “Good” for the region but not downright “Ugly” either. In this scenario, the US and China continue their military buildups and step up their diplomatic contest for the hearts and minds of ASEAN states. The COC negotiations drag on — in good part because of the continued behind-the-scenes US-China struggle to control the content. The ASEAN members lean more heavily on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 arbitration decision against China to increase pressure on it to abide by the ruling — largely to no avail. But they also increase the tone and tenor of their opposition to outside military intervention regarding their disputes with China — again with limited success.

The “Good” scenario is a bridge much too far. In their 2013 Sunnylands summit, China’s President Xi Jinping proposed to then US president Barack Obama “a new model of great power relations” that implied equality and shared responsibility in world affairs. The US has essentially rejected it — apparently because it believes that it is the world’s only “exceptional” nation. Expecting that to change soon is unrealistic.

The “good news” is that the “Ugly” scenario is so disastrous that it will likely be avoided by both. However, unexpected incidents and political developments could cause the situation to transition from “Bad” to “Ugly”. What if a Chinese anti-air missile system locks on to a US spy plane. Do US forces in the area “defend it by launching weapons against that Chinese system, or do they wait in the hope that China is bluffing?” This is just one possible scenario that could precipitate a clash.

In the longer term, if the US wants to avoid direct conflict with China in the South China Sea — or at least postpone it — it must accommodate or at least appear to accommodate to some degree China’s international interests and aspirations there. On what issues, when, how, and how much are questions to ponder.

A different version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post.

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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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