South China Sea
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What if the US escalates confrontation and China does not bend or back off? Illustration: Craig Stephens

South China Sea tensions: does the US have an endgame, beyond war?

Mark J. Valencia says the US’ new, more confrontational approach to China’s actions in the South China Sea is based on misconceptions and disingenuous thinking – and could provoke conflict if Beijing isn’t prepared to back down

At last week’s Shangri-La Dialogue, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis asserted that China’s “militarisation” of its occupied features in the South China Sea is “for the purposes of intimidation and coercion”. Indeed, it seems the US has decided to step up pressure in the South China Sea. However, this policy shift is based in part on misperceptions that could easily lead to conflict.
This new US hard line towards China was officially manifested in its December 2017 National Security Strategy that declared China a “strategic competitor” and “revisionist” nation regarding the existing international order. On May 23, the Pentagon announced it had withdrawn its invitation to China to participate in the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) – the world’s largest multinational military exercise. It said “China’s behaviour [in the South China Sea] is inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the RIMPAC exercise.”
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis speaks during the Shangri-La Dialogue Asia Security Summit in Singapore, on June 2. Mattis blasted China’s deployment of military assets in the South China Sea, expanding the Trump administration’s criticism amid a continued dispute over trade. Photo: Bloomberg
This slight was followed four days later by a provocative first: a freedom of navigation operation within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, including Woody Island, that “violated” China’s requirement of prior permission for warships to enter its territorial waters. Woody Island is China’s largest military outpost in the South China Sea and where one of its H-6K strategic bombers recently landed. The US ships were confronted by Chinese warships that, according to the US, behaved in an “unprofessional manner”.
On May 29, Mattis said the rescinded invitation was a “relatively small consequence” and that “there are much larger consequences in the future”. The US has also changed the name of the Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command, indicating a hope that India will help to contain China. The commander, Admiral Harry Harris, said on May 30 that "without focused involvement and engagement by the United States and our allies and partners, China will realise its dream of hegemony in Asia.

China has responded to the US policy shift and what it sees as a growing threat. Its air force spokesperson said the landing (and take off) of strategic bombers at Woody Island was part of training to improve its ability to “reach all territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions” as well as preparation for “the battle for the South China Sea”.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue, China’s Lieutenant General He Lei derided Mattis’ comments as “irresponsible” and foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to Harris’ remarks by saying that “those who seek and indulge in hegemony will always think that others are coveting their own hegemony”.

But the new US policy is bedevilled with misconceptions, hypocrisy, disingenuousness and a lack of a strategic endgame. Answering questions after his speech, Mattis said: “We [the US] firmly believe in the non-coercive aspect of how nations should get along with each other.”

This assertion must have been met with raised eyebrows, coming from a nation that has used coercion and force to get its way in international relations. He also said “we do not ask any country to choose between the United States and China.” Perhaps he should ask Australia, the Philippines and Asean nations if that is the way they perceive US entreaties.

Mattis has implied that China threatens freedom of navigation by stating that the US is defending the concept “for all nations” so they can transit “those waters for their own prosperity”. But China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation and is unlikely to do so in peacetime.

The problem is that the US has conflated freedom of commercial navigation with a military priority – freedom of navigation for its military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes, making frequent reference to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which it has not even ratified. China indeed objects to what it perceives as US abuse of “freedom of navigation” and “intimidation and coercion” in enforcing its interpretation.
“Militarisation” also means different things to China and the US. To China, the placement of “defensive” weapons constitutes an exercise of its right to self-defence. In Beijing’s view, the US has clearly militarised the region with its forward-deployed troops, assets and patrols, bolstered by the “ rebalance” of its defence forces. “The United States military presence in the South China Sea is greater than that of China and other countries that surround the seas combined,” Hua said.

Watch: Chinese senior military official dismisses US defence secretary’s remarks on South China Sea militarisation

Mattis also claims China’s militarisation of the Spratlys directly contradicts President Xi Jinping’s public assurances from 2015. This repeats a self-serving interpretation of Xi’s statement. The original quote – in Chinese – was translated as: “Relevant construction activities that China are [sic] undertaking in the island of South – Nansha [Spratly] Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarisation.”

That is considerably more ambiguous than Mattis’ interpretation. Moreover, Chinese government spokespeople have since implied that if the US continues its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes, exercises and freedom of navigation operations challenging China’s claims there, it will prepare to defend itself. Given that the US has continued these missions and may even step them up, it should come as no surprise that China has responded as it said it would.

But the more serious problem for US policy in the South China Sea is that it does not have a strategic endgame, short of war. So far, the US response has not been effective. China has persisted in its claims and actions in its own “near seas” despite US warnings.

What if the US escalates confrontation and China does not bend or back off? Is the US really prepared to go to war over a hypothetical threat to freedom of navigation and China’s actions, vis-à-vis rival claimants, regarding flyspecks and resources in a sea halfway around the world? There is no core US security interest at stake here.

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