US-CHINA compromise in the South China Sea could be the basis of a larger strategic framework

Apr 15, 2022
US Pacific fleet South China Sea
China and the U.S. could also make a partial – and probably temporary – grand bargain. Image: Flickr / U.S. Pacific Fleet

China has already proposed “a new model of great power relations” implying equality and shared responsibility in world affairs. To avoid military conflict, the U.S. must accommodate to some extent China’s legitimate interests and aspirations by sharing power—when, on what issues, how, and how much are to be negotiated.

Mr. Rudd proposes that military conflict between China and the U.S. can be avoided by their agreement on a strategic framework that would– among others– set out ”principles and procedures for navigating each other’s strategic redlines”.

Former Australian Prime Minister and China expert Kevin Rudd has published a penetrating and prescient analysis of the history and future of US-China relations as an excerpt of his forthcoming book. Mr. Rudd points out that a “chasm of distrust” between the two has been widening for some time. The U.S. no longer believes that China will rise peacefully or that its capitalism with Chinese characteristics will moderate its domestic political system or its growing international ambitions. Indeed, he says the US national security establishment believes that China is intent on changing the international order in its favor to the disadvantage of the U.S.—its major creator, defender and beneficiary. Mr. Rudd says that the US has focused on China’s actions in the South China Sea as evidence.

Mr. Rudd says China thinks that America is trying to constrain and contain it and thus deprive it of its rightful destiny as a global power. He says China sees the US challenges to its claims in the South China Sea as evidence of this strategy.

Regarding China’s modernization and expansion of its military he thinks the main motive is to ”prepare for future Taiwan contingencies”. But America sees it as a ”much broader challenge to US military predominance across the wider Indo-Pacific region and beyond.” A major US concern is the advance of China’s naval assets and capabilities—in particular its growing submarine capabilities, and the development of a “blue-water fleet”.

Such a framework should begin with their interactions in the South China Sea. It is at the crux of the US-China strategic contest for regional dominance and is also a nexus of their fundamental differences regarding the ‘international order’.

Here, China and the U.S. have juxtaposed military strategies. China is developing what the U.S. calls an anti-access/area denial strategy that is designed to control China’s “near seas” and prevent access to them by the U.S. in the event of a conflict To counter this strategy, the U.S. intends to cripple China’s command, control, communications, computer and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems (C4 ISR). This means that C4 ISR is the “tip of the spear” for both, and both are trying to dominate this sphere over, on and under China’s near seas.

These are dangerous dynamics and there are several obvious ‘red lines’. For China, the South China Sea provides relative ‘sanctuary’ for its retaliatory strike nuclear submarines based at Hainan.  These submarines are its insurance against a first strike — something the U.S.—unlike China–has not disavowed. Thus the possibility of a first strike is an existential threat to China and an advantage for the U.S. in military strategy—and coercion.

The U.S. uses intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes in the South China Sea to detect, track and in war time target China’s nuclear submarines. China’s response has been to develop on some of the features it occupies the capability to neutralize US ISR in time of conflict.

Thus for China its installations are important to its continued existence and it is not about to unilaterally compromise this defense. But the U.S. believes it needs to continue its intelligence probes because they give it an overall strategic nuclear advantage over China. As legal cover for its ISR probes , US lawfare conflates commercial freedom of navigation with freedom of navigation for warships and warplanes to spy on and threaten China’s defenses.

So for China, any US move to significantly diminish these defense capabilities would likely be a ‘red line’. But for the U.S., a corresponding ‘red line’ might well be any serious attempt to disrupt its ISR probes.

Other red lines for the U.S., would include blatant violations of commercial freedom of navigation or an attack on the forces or territory of its ally the Philippines. This is primarily because a non-response by the U.S. would destroy its credibility as the ‘leader’ and protector of the ‘international order’ and the region. Former Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell declared that any attempt by China to occupy and build on the Philippines- claimed Scarborough Shoal is also a ‘red line’. China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over a large swath of disputed waters in the South China Sea might not in itself be crossing a ‘red line’, although an attempt to enforce it would likely be so.

For China, whose body politic has become increasingly nationalistic, any national loss of face and resultant loss of respect for leadership could trigger a crossed ‘red line’ response. This might include a US military confrontation that forces a public climb down by China’s PLAN.

There are undoubtedly other red lines best known to their strategic and intelligence communities.

Such a strategic framework could include an Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA). In the late 1960s there were several dangerous incidents between the US and Soviet Navies that involved close encounters of warplanes, ships bumping one another, and threatening maneuvers by both.  The U.S. proposed and the Soviet Union agreed to negotiate an INCSEA which is still in effect today. Specifically, the agreement provides for steps for warships to avoid collision; prohibitions on interfering with each others’ “formations” and simulating attacks the other party’s warships; requiring surveillance ships to maintain a safe distance from the object of investigation so as to avoid “embarrassing or endangering the ships under surveillance”; informing vessels when submarines are exercising near them; and other such measures designed to avoid accidental clashes. Today, similar incidents between the US and China’s navies are increasing in the South China Sea and it is time for them to negotiate an INCSEA.

This is not that farfetched. China and the U.S. already claim to be adherents to the non-binding Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). This is an agreement reached at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium to reduce the chance of an incident at sea and — in the event that one occurs — to prevent it from escalating. However it has been ineffective in curbing incidents between the U.S. and China, mainly because they do not stem from “unplanned” encounters. A higher level bilateral agreement like an INCSEA is needed.

China and the U.S. could also make a partial – and probably temporary – grand bargain. In such a bargain, China would refrain from further occupation, construction and “militarization” on its claimed features. It would also not undertake any extremely provocative action like occupying and building on Scarborough Shoal, harassing other claimants in the disputed area and declaring an air defense identification zone over the Spratlys. The U.S., in turn, would decrease or cease altogether its provocative FONOPs there and its “close-in” intelligence probes. It would also refrain from belligerent threats and actions.

China has already proposed “a new model of great power relations” implying equality and shared responsibility in world affairs. To avoid military conflict, the U.S. must accommodate to some extent China’s legitimate interests and aspirations by sharing power—when, on what issues, how, and how much are to be negotiated.

This piece first appeared in the Asia Times. 


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