US flights in South China Sea take it a step closer to conflict with China

Mark Valencia says the dire consequences of a confrontation are not worth the risk the US is taking with its provocative flights near Chinese features in the South China Sea

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 May, 2015, 5:06pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 1:59pm

The CNN-filmed flight of a US surveillance plane near Chinese occupied features in the South China Sea has created an international incident with dire potential political implications. Indeed, as the United States and China exchange threats, US allies and friends in the region are becoming increasingly nervous. The knock-on effects of a US-China confrontation and a resultant sharp deterioration of relations would be very damaging to their economies and security. Essentially, they would be forced to abandon their hedging strategies and choose sides.

In Washington, Daniel Russel, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said: "Nobody in their right mind is going to stop the US Navy from operating. That would not be a good step." However, Wang Yi , China's foreign minister - presumably in his "right mind" - told US Secretary of State John Kerry this month that the "determination of the Chinese side to safeguard our own sovereignty and territorial integrity is as firm as a rock and it is unshakeable".

The Global Times, which often reflects the views of the Chinese leadership, editorialised that "Washington is purposefully raising tensions with China, a move that has created a higher risk of a physical confrontation between both sides". The spokesperson for China's foreign ministry Hong Lei warned the US not to take "any risky and provocative actions".

It is small wonder that former CIA deputy director Michael Morell told CNN that there is "absolutely" a risk of the US and China going to war. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon chimed in, calling on "all parties concerned to resolve their disputes through dialogue, in conformity with international law".

According to former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr, his nation's business community is worried about the risks to its economic relationship with China engendered by siding with the US. But what may be at stake is Australia's strategy of being "friends to both".

Vietnam, one of the chief proponents of greater US involvement in the issue, may be softening its position. Last week, Le Hai Binh, a spokesperson for Vietnam's foreign ministry, said that Vietnam urged all parties concerned to respect the sovereignty of coastal states in accordance with international laws and not further complicate the status quo. While this could be interpreted as being aimed at China, it may also reflect deeper worries that Vietnam may get caught in the crossfire.

The US surveillance aircraft involved in the incident flew out of Clark Airbase in the Philippines. This operational support for the US threatens Asean solidarity. Indeed, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations may be rent asunder over this issue. This may have been presaged by Cambodia's unprecedented diplomatic intervention on the matter earlier this month. On May 7, it convened diplomats from 28 countries to hear Foreign Affairs Secretary Soeung Rathchavy tacitly support China's position on settling the South China Sea disputes by arguing that territorial conflicts should be addressed between claimants and not involve Asean.

The US resort to threatening the use of military force through its so-called "freedom of navigation" activities indicates that it has run out of good options. Its current approach is not "containing" China or even significantly moderating its position and actions, or those of other claimants.

The more muscular US tactic may also reflect its growing concern regarding the credibility of its security relationships in Asia as well as the effectiveness of international security arrangements there. The US theory seems to be that China is paying an increasing "reputational cost" for its actions in the South China Sea and will eventually moderate its behaviour due to international public pressure.

However, by its actions, the US may have "boxed in" the Chinese leadership, which is feeling internal pressure from an increasingly vocal nationalistic populace. China may well respond to the current US strategy by subordinating its concerns with its "reputation" and even stepping up its tactical assertiveness. Indeed, it is likely that China will ignore the US gambit and continue its reclamation efforts.

The worst fears of the US and others may then materialise if China declares an air defence identification zone over the Spratlys - or at least those island features it occupies - and militarises them. In the worst-case scenario, the US and China would become open rivals, the region would be polarised, an arms race would ensue and crises would be frequent and frightening.

Ironically, the US may then also find itself in a diplomatic corner with a growing domestic constituency pushing it to "stand up to China". It will have created a situation in which its military prowess and the credibility of its security guarantees to its allies and friends are at stake.

Already, some are calling this issue a test of freedom of navigation, US treaty obligations, existing international law and order, and US preeminence in the region. The clamour for a robust response to China will only grow louder as the US presidential campaign moves into full swing.

In the incident documented by CNN, the US has now clarified that its aircraft stayed outside the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea that the Chinese feature may generate. Under international law, a foreign aircraft cannot fly over the territory or territorial sea of another country without its permission. Moreover, it is questionable whether a military vessel entering a territorial sea simply to demonstrate a right of passage is "innocent passage".

But the plot is thickening. The Pentagon has warned that entry into or over Chinese-claimed insular territory and its 12-nautical-mile territorial seas would be the "next step".

All we can do now is hold our collective breath.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China