In the South China Sea, no sign of a thaw between China and the US

Mark Valencia says all signs point to a nervous status quo in the South China Sea – though an out-and-out war is unlikely, the prospects of a truce, even a temporary one, are bleak

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 March, 2017, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 10 March, 2017, 6:42pm

There is an air of anxiety and uncertainty regarding the future of the contest between China and the US in the South China Sea. This is understandable given the wobbly leadership transition in the US, the uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration’s policy towards China, and the equally uncertain Chinese reaction to it. Meanwhile, those favouring a US confrontation with China are clamouring for more aggressive US action, while others are urging caution.

In an optimistic best-case scenario, China and the US will make a pseudo – and temporary – grand bargain which the region’s countries will have to live with. That the US would even consider – let alone make – such a deal would indicate to all that it recognises and respects China’s status as a dominant regional power. This is really what China wants – for now.

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Strategically, this would set the tone for the region – in essence a political and military stand-down. China would refrain from further occupation, construction and “militarisation” on its claimed features. It would also not undertake any provocative action like occupying and building on Scarborough Shoal, harassing other claimants in the area and declaring an air defence identification zone over the Spratlys. The US, in turn, would decrease or cease altogether its provocative freedom of navigation operations and its “close-in” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes, which China says threaten its security. It would also refrain from belligerent actions like “blockading” China’s occupied features.

This scenario – a tense “agreement to disagree” – is not without its downside. Since nothing would be fully and finally resolved, it would probably result in intensifying competition – a “cool war” – between the two for soft-power influence in the region. This would intensify pressure on the region’s countries to pick and choose between them. It could even see stepped-up covert operations by both in the vulnerable countries, in which the two powers would support “friendly” domestic factions and foment opposition to its “enemy”. So this situation may simply be kicking the can down the road.

That the US would even consider such a deal would indicate to all that it respects China’s status as a dominant regional power. This is really what China wants – for now

Whatever its merits and demerits, this scenario is unlikely because of the pressure from military hawks and nationalists on both sides for their respective leaders to be more aggressive. More likely is a worse scenario in which the Trump administration follows hawkish advice and pursues across-the-board confrontational policies towards China in general, and in the South China Sea in particular.

This would result in a true cold war, with all the negative ramifications for the region’s peace, stability, economics and politics. More worrying, this cold war could break out in a “hot war” at any time.

Without a doubt, the worst scenario is out-and-out war. Many scenarios could lead to a military confrontation between China and the US that could escalate into war. The South China Sea issues are actually quite low on the list of likely triggers, when compared to a Chinese attack on Taiwan, a Chinese attack on the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (known to the Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands, and which the US has said fall under the Japan-US security treaty), or China’s military support for North Korea in a clash between it and South Korea (and the US).

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Of course, any one of these clashes could spill over into the South China Sea. And there is always the likelihood of more “accidents” involving the Chinese and US warships and planes there.

This worst scenario, like the best, is also unlikely. One reason is that US President Donald Trump, whether out of strategic intent or dysfunctional character, is clearly inconsistent, unpredictable and downright scary – especially in foreign policy. China’s leaders just don’t know what to make of him. For the US, this is both good and bad. It is good in the sense that it makes potential adversaries like China think twice before calling the US’ bluff. But it is bad in that it compels China to prepare for the worst by building up its defences – particularly its navy and military cyber capabilities.

Another reason this scenario is unlikely for now is that despite its public bravado, the US military is a bit wary of taking on China’s anti-access/area denial strategy in a conventional war in China’s “home waters”. US military concerns include China’s probable use of overwhelming numbers of mines and missiles, and its rumoured capability to blind US command and control networks through attacks on critical US satellites and massive cyber strikes. The mutual economic damage that such a clash would wreak is also a deterrent.

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The most likely scenario for the South China Sea is something in between – a “leaking” status quo. In this scenario, the US and China eye each other warily. They prepare for the worst but continue in a semi stand-off. Neither crosses the other’s red line. Both continue to enhance their military capabilities and presence in the region. Although this scenario is less than optimal, especially for other countries in the region, it is probably the best that can realistically be hoped for.

We are thus likely to see more of the same – dangerous incidents, threatening rhetoric, and more competition than cooperation, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations relegated to the sidelines. But a US-China war over the South China Sea is unlikely – for now.

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