Can China, United States prevent a war of words over South China Sea becoming a military storm?
After a turbulent few weeks in the maritime region, defence officials at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore will be hoping to find some calmer waters
In the days leading up to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, which brings together top defence officials from across the Asia-Pacific region, the United States noticeably turned up the heat on China in the South China Sea.
Consider that in recent weeks, we’ve seen the first US freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) to incorporate two warships. USS Antietam and USS Higgins recently protested against China’s straight baselines around the Paracel Islands and its demands of prior notification for innocent passage transits.
The operation came on the heels of the US Department of Defence deciding that twice would be enough for the PLA Navy’s participation in the multinational Rim of the Pacific naval exercises, which are held every two years. China’s navy took part in 2014 and 2016, but won’t this year after Washington pulled its invitation on account of Beijing’s militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea.
To top matters off, this week, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis oversaw a symbolic renaming of the US Pacific Command to the US Indo-Pacific Command. The shift in nomenclature underlines the emergence of a singular strategic space encompassing the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean – not only in Washington, but also in New Delhi, Tokyo and Canberra.
Admiral Harry Harris, the outgoing commander of what is now the US Indo-Pacific Command, said on Wednesday that China’s “dream of hegemony in Asia” was the greatest long-term challenge facing the United States in Asia. Harris’ words weren’t exceptional for this administration, which defined China explicitly as a “revisionist” power in its National Security Strategy and National Defence Strategy documents, released in December.
In sum, we’re beginning to see the military-to-military relationship between the United States and China head for turbulent waters in 2018 – catching up with and mirroring aspects of the Trump administration’s economic policy towards China. Even as the Trump administration increased the operational tempo of its FONOPs in 2017, it did not make calling out Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea a priority.
At last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, Mattis delivered an address that could easily have been given by his predecessor, Ashton Carter. This year, however, the defence secretary is expected to not only outline how the United States will bring consequences to bear on China for its rule-breaking behaviour, but also how Washington will seek to operationalise the much-discussed Indo-Pacific strategy into something more than a bumper sticker.
China, for its part, has chosen to hold fast. Responding to Admiral Harris’ departing comments, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said that “those who seek and indulge in hegemony will always think that others are coveting their own hegemony”.
For Beijing, there’s little doubt about who the real source of problems in the South China Sea continues to be. Its view is that China’s slow but steady conversion of its seven artificial islands in the Spratly group into capable military outposts is far from the primary locus of “militarised” activity in the disputed waterway; instead, it is the US Navy’s presence that comprises the core hub of militarisation.
Heading into the second half of 2018 – and nearly the second half of President Trump’s first term in office – there’s little doubt that the US is beginning to see the Obama-era approach to Chinese activity in the South China Sea as wholly insufficient.
But as this new muscular approach takes shape, it’ll be far from clear that Washington can actually bring sufficient costs to bear on China to cause it to change its behaviour.
But the core approach from Washington for the moment is to emphasise that China’s years of rule-breaking behaviour in the South China Sea – and continued defiance of the 2016 ruling by The Hague-based arbitral tribunal – will result in clearer public challenge.
Even as China is disinvited from RIMPAC and called out for its behaviour, military-to-military ties between Washington and Beijing remain both broad and deep, suggesting that conflict may not be inevitable. But make no mistake: rough seas lie ahead for the relationship.