US warns of South China Sea ‘provocations’ – but who is provoking whom?
- The US denounces Chinese ‘aggression’ while relentlessly conducting probes and showing off its military might in China’s backyard
- Were China to do the same near America’s Gulf coast, how would Washington react?
The frequency and intensity of dangerous incidents between the US and China militaries in the area are indeed increasing. And the possibility of an escalation is certainly higher following the visit to Taiwan by second in line to the US presidency Nancy Pelosi. But the US needs to pause and examine just who is provoking whom.
Jung Pak, of the US State Department’s bureau of East Asia and Pacific affairs said recently there was “a clear and upward trend of PRC provocations against South China Sea claimants and other states lawfully operating in the region”– which means the US and its allies.
Ely Ratner, Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, went further by declaring that “Beijing is systematically testing the limits of our collective resolve”, implying that this has become China’s policy.
This is clearly the latest Washington anti-China meme. But it evokes the famous exclamation of tennis star John McEnroe: “You cannot be serious!” The US certainly shares some of the blame for the situation. Let’s look at the facts.
The context is that the South China Sea is halfway around the world from Washington and is China’s “backyard”. Historically, its colonisers used the sea to invade and conquer it. China’s fundamental defence strategy is to keep potential enemies as far from its shores as possible.
To do so, China is developing what the US calls an “access/area denial strategy” designed to control China’s “near seas” and prevent access by the US in the event of a conflict.
But China is facing an uphill struggle in implementing its strategy. The US – unlike China – already has military “places”, if not bases, for its ISR in Southeast Asia, including in the Philippines and Thailand – two US military allies – and more recently in Malaysia and Singapore.
More important to China’s existential strategy, the South China Sea provides relative “sanctuary” for its retaliatory strike nuclear submarines based in Yulin on Hainan.
These submarines are its insurance against a first strike, something the US – unlike China – has not disavowed. The US wants to deny China this “sanctuary”. It uses ISR probes to detect and determine the capabilities of China’s submarines, as well as to track and, if necessary, target them.
Moreover, the US is doing all this with “attitude”. As one senior US naval officer put it, FONOPs are “an in your face, rub your nose in it operation that lets people know who is the boss”.
Incidents happen when China challenges US ISR probes that it thinks directly threaten its security. The US military now undertakes an average of four ISR missions a day over the South China Sea. That’s about 1,500 a year. Some come as close as 25 nautical miles – and China understandably sees this as threatening.
The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group just passed through the South China Sea and the USS Benfold just completed two FONOPs challenging China’s claims in the Paracels and the Spratlys.
Stop for a moment and consider what the US reaction would be if China mounted a similar volume of probes and projections of power off its Gulf coast. Would the US military consider them provocative and threatening, and respond accordingly?
The US is involved in a classic “security dilemma” in the South China Sea – a situation in which the actions of one state to make itself more secure tend to make others less secure, leading to a vicious cycle of action and reaction. In the end, neither state is more “secure”.
The US needs to stop repeating and believing its own propaganda and recognise the situation for what it is, then deal with it with clear heads. Compromise on military behaviour in the South China Sea with an increasingly – and understandably – incredulous China is the only peaceful way out of this security dilemma.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China