Beijing now calls the shots in the South China Sea, and the US and Asean must accept this for lasting peace
Mark J. Valencia says China’s perceptual domination of the sea lanes is complete and, military grandstanding aside, the US and others in the region will need to focus on realistic goals, rather than desirable ones
The contest for the perceptual domination of the South China Sea, for the Asean claimants and thereby Southeast Asia, is over. China has won. There is little its regional opponents can do now. How did this come about and what are the options for dealing with it?
By guile, patience and perseverance, China has inexorably occupied and “militarised” seven supposedly strategic features in the South China Sea. In the process, it has successfully defied an international arbitration decision invalidating its infamous nine-dash line claim, as well as its actions against the Philippines and its sovereignty claim, and occupation of four low-tide elevations.
More significantly, it has done so in the face of US challenges and even shows of force in the form of “freedom of navigation operations” (Fonops), as well as protests from other claimants, like Vietnam and the Philippines. The latter was the first to recognise the futility of opposing China there and the benefits of “working with it”. It is likely that others – like Brunei and Malaysia – will follow suit. Even Vietnam, increasingly the lone and lonely opponent, may be coming round.
Watch: China dismisses South China Sea ruling
The irony is that the contest has been, and still is, primarily perceptual in nature. No commercial shipping has been affected, despite the constant US concern with “freedom of navigation”, nor is it likely to be in peacetime, given China’s heavy dependence on ship-borne trade.
Indeed, China is just as, or even more, concerned that the US might try to block its shipping traffic in the event of hostilities. Most importantly, a point often lost in the diplomatic hand-wringing is that, in a real shooting war, China’s military installations would be highly vulnerable to attack and destruction; they give China little, if any, strategic advantage in a clash with the US.
The real value for China of its actions and installations is they have shown that the claimants, including US military ally the Philippines, are essentially alone in their contest with China. To be sure, given Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot away from the US and President Donald Trump’s inconsistent and confusing policy towards China , the South China Sea and the region have serendipitously enhanced China’s perceptual position. Trump’s abandonment of the US economic initiative with Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and his “let’s make a deal” approach to foreign policy have left Southeast Asian nations questioning the US will and staying power in the region. The resultant hedging, waffling and even tilting of Southeast Asian countries towards China has only served to illustrate the shallowness and fragility of American security ties in the region.
Watch: Duterte pledges to avoid South China Sea issue in Beijing
So what are the options for the United States in the near term?
One possibility, advocated by US hardliners, is for it to physically confront China over its actions and claims in the South China Sea. This could include forcing China’s forces off the features it occupies or even blockading them. Another suggestion is for the US to gain military access to the other claimants’ bases there and thus compete in a mini arms race with China.
But this is highly unlikely. The current US strategy to prevent China’s build-up there – if there was or is one – has not worked so far. Moreover, as prominent Australian analyst Hugh White observes, Washington has shown little appetite for engaging in a confrontation with China in its own backyard, where it might take heavy losses and not win quickly or outright. The US also reckons that support for its “friends and allies” or for nebulous concepts, like the international order or the freedom of navigation, are not sufficient reasons to do so.
More importantly, it perceives that its “friends and allies” do not want to see a US-China confrontation, at least one that will involve or negatively affect them, and it is difficult to imagine one that would not.
Worst of all, this would be a bad idea because, as White suggests, China believes the US does not have the will and wherewithal to meaningfully confront it and would thus press on. If the US was not bluffing, as China would think, the result could well be war.
Another option, also unlikely, is for the US and China to proactively agree to a modus operandi that accommodates Chinese concerns and shares management of the regions’ security situation. But the US has no history of, or predilection for, sharing power with anyone – and this is likely to continue in the Trump era.
A third, more likely, option is a leaking status quo. In this scenario, China continues to enhance its military capacity in the South China Sea and to interfere with other claimants’ activities there. The US continues to object and, in the words of its defence secretary, James Mattis, to “sail, fly and operate wherever international law applies”. This includes continued Fonops and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes in China’s near-shore waters. China continues to vehemently object to and even challenge the more provocative operations. This could produce a tit-for-tat dynamic in which China enhances its military presence in the sea with each probe or Fonop, which China has repeatedly warned would be the result of such provocation.
Indeed, after the recent Fonop in which the USS Dewey indirectly challenged China’s sovereignty over a low-tide elevation, the defence ministry in Beijing warned that the US actions would “only motivate the Chinese military to enhance its capacity”.
Trump’s honeymoon with China seems to be ending. China has not delivered to Trump’s satisfaction on North Korea, his administration has agreed a new arms sale to Taiwan, despite Beijing’s vehement objections, and is making noises about punishing China for unfair trade. Relations overall are likely to become more contentious.
What China considers provocative Fonops and ISR probes are ever more likely with aggressive Pacific Command chief Harry Harris apparently calling the tactical shots. The July 2 operation near Triton Island in the Paracels is probably a harbinger of more to come, including in the Spratlys, even though the two disputed island groups present different situations.
Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2017
More US-China military incidents are likely, but hopefully none will cross the threshold to open conflict – although they will likely come increasingly closer to it.
In any of these scenarios, the Southeast Asian claimants – and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, are increasingly sidelined. As China rises in power, the Western-built and US-led international order, particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, continues to haemorrhage, and there is really little that Asean or the US can do about it.
Asean’s centrality in security affairs for the region becomes an ever more unobtainable goal in the face of big power rivalries.
The point is that the sooner the other claimants, Asean as a whole and the US face reality and embrace the art of the possible, rather than the desirable, the more likely it is that they can find and accept a modus operandi that will maintain peace in the South China Sea.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China