A recent US Council on Foreign Relations Report advising the US government how it should deal with China in the South China Sea is derivative, defective, dewy eyed and dangerous. It is particularly worrying because the author is a China “expert” that advises the Pentagon. As such, this report cries out for rebuttal.
A recent US Council on Foreign Relations Report entitled Military Confrontation in the South China Sea [‘thereport’] advises the US government how it should deal with China in the South China Sea. It is derivative, defective, dewy eyed and dangerous. What is particularly worrying is that the author is a China “expert” that advises the Pentagon. As such, this report cries out for rebuttal.
The report’s body indicates little comprehension of the perspectives of both China and Southeast Asia and the strategic reasons for them. Its introduction sets up China as a straw monster bent on dominating its rivals in the South China Sea. It repeats the litany of sins allegedly committed by China, and parrots the US public relations narrative. These have been explained and countered elsewhere.
There are several main threads running through the report. One is that China is a threat to freedom of commercial navigation in the South China Sea and that the U.S. military is there to combat that threat.
This is nonsense. China has not hindered freedom of commercial navigation and is unlikely to do so in peacetime. It does protest provocative US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes in its near waters. But the U.S.—and the report—conflate freedom of commercial navigation with freedom of navigation for its warships and ISR vessels and aircraft. Contrary to the report’s assertion and unlike Malaysia and Thailand, China does not ban all foreign military activities in its EEZ without its permission. It does object to what it believes is US violation of its laws and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Its position is that the probes are not for peaceful purposes and that some endanger the environment or undertake marine scientific research without permission.
Having established this straw monster, the report suggests that the US get NATO, Australia, Japan and Southeast Asian countries to join its freedom of navigation patrols. But the U.S. has been pressuring these countries for years to do so and the only one to undertake a FONOP in the South China Sea challenging China’s claims was the U.K. – and that was by itself and a one off.
The reasons for their reticence are 1. they believe such gunboat diplomacy is not warranted and that diplomatic protests are sufficient to register disagreement; and 2. they are unsure of U.S. staying power and are increasingly dependent on China’s trade, investment and aid. This is unlikely to change. Even if it did, China would not react well to such group bullying.
The second main thread is speculation about the worst things that China might do. Again this is setting up a straw monster. There are just too many ‘ifs’ in this thread to take it seriously. Similar speculation regarding the U.S. could be spun by China. US military intervention might be justified if China attacked an ally or interfered with commercial freedom of navigation –but not until and unless it does so.
Another main thread is that the U.S. presence “maintains peace and stability.” Many in the region do not agree. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has said that “ _ _ the threat of confrontation and trouble in the waterway came from outside the region.” Then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad argued that “big warships [in the South China Sea] may cause incidents and that will lead to tension.” While China might give the U.S. difficulties in a clash near its shores, it is the U.S. that presently militarily dominates the South China Sea – not China.
The ‘dangerous’ portion of the report is its options for the U.S. These include “deterrence by punishment” and “deterrence by denial.”
“Deterrence by punishment” is a recipe for confrontation and conflict. It includes leveraging economic relations, which has already proven ineffective. Another component is to “encourage other nations to align against China”. Elaborating this suggestion under ‘military options,’ the report suggests strengthening Southeast Asian anti-access, area—denial capabilities including on their claimed features, and offering to deploy assets and troops to the South China Sea countries. This ignores the fact that these countries are unwilling to confront China militarily – even with the U.S. – and that they do not want US forces operating against China from their soil.
The report itself seems to acknowledge that these military options are unlikely to be accepted by the rival claimants– unless there is a crisis or conflict erupts—an event that implementing some of the report’s recommendations would make more likely. The report advocates as a last resort “boarding and seizing [offending] Chinese vessels!”
As it says “European countries, for example, do not have the same security interests in the region, and could be reluctant to get involved. Southeast Asian states that are not directly affected by a particular Chinese military aggression are likely to avoid cooperating with the United States to make themselves less likely future targets.”
“Deterrence by denial” would also include measures already tried and shown to be ineffective like “enhance security co-operation and assistance to Southeast Asian countries,” increase co-ordination with regional “partners” – particularly in “intrusive FONOPs” (as if they were not already perceived by China as intrusive); and “expand and strengthen the US military force posture in the South China Sea.”
The report’s bottom line recommendation is the most dangerous. If nothing else works, the U.S. should use “military power to force China to give up any ill-gotten gains” presumably defined by it.
The report concludes with trite, unrealistic and dangerous recommendations based on false and inaccurate assumptions. Many have already been or are being attempted –without the desired effect. For example, the report recommends that “the tempo of [US] military operations in the South China Sea be increased.” It then suggests that if China responds in kind – as it probably will – the U.S. “should be [even] more provocative” including taking kinetic action against China’s fishing militia vessels. Imagine the headlines –“US warship sinks Chinese fishing boat with loss of life.”
Another trite recommendation is to pursue arms control with China. Given that the U.S. has withdrawn from the intermediate range ballistic missile treaty with Russia so it can deploy them against China, such arms control pacts seem highly unlikely.
The report does have reasonable suggestions. It proposes that the U.S. “could accommodate China’s position to persuade China that military action is unnecessary” and that it should compromise. But it then suggests several unrealistic US-China bargains such as mutual reduction of military forces and activities there. Various forms of this have been suggested before and have been rejected by the U.S.!
The problem has long been that – unlike the then USSR – the U.S. refuses to see China as a military equal and entering into formal incident at sea agreements like it did with the USSR would convey that status to it. It also claims that China has not abided by informal agreements like CUES and that making it formal would thus be fruitless.
Further, the report undermines its own proposal by warning that such bargains would ‘weaken the U.S. role as the security partner of choice and encourage more Chinese aggression.’
The report’s one new and potentially useful recommendation is to designate a Presidential special envoy on South China Sea issues to “improve co-ordination” of policy and diplomacy and negotiate possible interim agreements between the U.S. and China and perhaps others. This idea deserves consideration. But any such envoy must start from a fully informed and balanced position — something that is not reflected by the tone and tenor of this report.