The beauty of restraint in the South China Sea

Tom Plate welcomes the toning down of rhetoric and says Beijing should now consider taking the diplomatic initiative, given the need for China and the US to break through fossilised thinking to improve relations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 November, 2015, 5:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 1:59pm

When feisty Chinese admirals or American generals fire off verbal macho-missiles, I either consider sliding under my earthquake-reinforced university desk or slipping over into the comfy contentment of denial that all is actually under control. And sometimes the latter is actually the case, as I hoped last week about China’s admiral, Wu Shengli (吳勝利). While informing his countrymen and women that the PLA Navy deserved their patriotic acclaim for its “enormous restraint” in the face of US provocations in the South China Sea, its commander brassily added that China’s navy would “defend our national sovereignty”. This is the large mass of ocean that Chinese cartographic experts are allegedly thinking of renaming (or so goes the rumour) “Xi’s Sea”.

READ MORE: Asean leaders raise concerns about South China Sea island-building as China tries to keep it off the table

The American side baulked, of course, but its rhetoric seemed more level-headed than boat-rocking. At one stop during his latest Asia “pivot”, President Barack Obama simply said: “For the sake of regional stability, the claimants should halt reclamation, construction and militarisation of disputed areas.” This pitch was to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes lesser powers that have been doing their own share of land reclamation in “Xi’s Sea”. But the main target of Obama’s remarks was the world leader in land, atoll and shoal reclaiming, China.

It’s possible that Beijing is starting to understand that it has pushed itself into such strong bargaining positions that it can now proceed with a newfound diplomatic amity

Even added up, these verbal shots across the bow from Wu and Obama did not sound like opening salvoes to war. It’s possible that Beijing is starting to understand that it has pushed itself into such strong bargaining positions (possession being nine-tenths of international law) that it can now artfully proceed, in the wake of its blitzkrieg build-up, with a newfound diplomatic amity.

The timing for magnanimity is good. The US public, enduring the presidential campaign, would take notice of a Chinese bid to smooth South China Sea waters; and Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic nominee and poll leader, would benefit from a silencing, however temporary, of the Republican non-lambs (Donald Trump et al).

READ MORE: South China Sea fears linger despite Beijing’s loan and aid pledges at East Asia Summit

But supreme naval commander Wu is right about one thing: every time a probing warship or warplane from the US Pacific Command pokes its nose into what the Chinese believe is their righteous space, it creates a fateful opportunity for some trigger-happy PLA Navy officer (or some equally ill-advised American counterpart) to unleash bedlam. The risk would have no reward. With his former secretary of state leading the pack, not even our cautious and deliberative US president could turn a blind eye, much less the other cheek. But neither could Beijing, facing public opinion pressures of its own, afford to appear a pitiless, helpless giant. Both sides know this.

READ MORE: Ahead of key Apec and Asean meetings, China’s attempts to soften its image have only limited success

Beijing’s top people don’t like surprises any more than America’s; behind-the-scenes choreography can work to reduce risk. The next US peacock-in-the-Pacific show is scheduled later this month; a pair of US warships will pop over to Mischief Reef to test the waters. But ask yourself: is this the best our two “bigs” can do? Whatever happened to President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) clarion call for “a new type of great power relationship”? Such a nice idea. And why not?

Sure, blame Washington, which, whether it’s under an Obama or a Bush, cannot seem to escape the Dante’s Inferno of the Middle East, so as to focus more on Asia. But the Xi administration needs to take a long look in the mirror, too. China may be destined to become the 21st-century power, but that doesn’t have to happen tomorrow. Wanting something quickly sometimes means it takes longer for it to come to pass.

In his deeply wise new book Restraint: A New Foundation for US Grand Strategy, MIT professor Barry Posen agrees that powers that have the might will always believe they have the right. That China is climbing closer to the US on the power ladder requires us to understand that it figures it’s in the right no matter what anyone says. Yet the US will stay in Asia as long as China thinks it shouldn’t. Even Posen, who wants the chore list of the US military substantially downsized (now in the network: some 800 extraterritorial bases, ports and airfields in more than 80 countries), puts it this way: “Asia is a more difficult case [than other issues for the US] … China may reach a point where it has sufficient power to bid for hegemony.” But, speaking directly to Beijing, the professor notes that China “does not yet possess much offensive capability; it can punish and harass, but not crush or conquer. Its options are limited.”

READ MORE: Beijing’s reef building in South China Sea will continue

Logically, Beijing and Washington need each other and ought to do better by themselves. But how? Thinking out of the box is not easy when you are cooped up inside it. The Chinese act as if the South China Sea is their personal sandbox, triggering the inevitable US reply of “No, it’s mine, too”. Beijing takes the view that it is simply reclaiming what it used to own; Washington views the reclamation projects as archipelago empire-building. Both sides box themselves in at the very moment they need to construct a new box. Let China make the first move; showing a measure of flexibility might actually work to firm up its position, particularly in the court of world opinion. Two “rights” can make a big wrong when it comes to the bilateral relationship.

Columnist Tom Plate, author of In the Middle of China’s Future, is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific studies at Loyola Marymount University, which recently conducted transpacific Skype seminars on US-China issues with Fudan University