As the Western media cacophony of assertions regarding the South China Sea imbroglio approaches a crescendo, it is a good time to pause and parse some of the more common and controversial ones. What makes distinguishing myth from fact particularly controversial in this situation is that new generations of reporters, analysts, and policy makers accept the assertions that favor their national or personal narrative as “facts.”
Assertion: China, or the US — take your pick — is destabilizing the situation.
Obviously, the question of whose actions are destabilizing depends on one’s perspective. According to US Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris: “I believe the reality is that China is a disruptive transitional force in the Indo-Pacific … Beijing is using its military and economic power to coerce its neighbors and erode the free and open international order.” The US and its supporters assert that it is China’s island building and “militarization” of its occupied features as well as its illegal claims and increasingly assertive actions that are destabilizing. This view favors the US narrative that China is challenging the existing international order — not coincidentally built and led primarily by the US. In other words, to the US, China is challenging US regional dominance.
But from China’s perspective, it is the US that is destabilizing the region with its forward deployed military and shows of force like the current foray of the Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group, its “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) challenging China’s claims, and its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes against China in its vulnerable “back door” waters. China views these actions as evidence of a US policy to block its legitimate rise and its right to prepare to defend itself from attack emanating from its “near waters.” As China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it: “The frequent show of force with the fully armed aircraft and naval vessels — in other words, militarization — is the most destabilizing factor in our region.” China never tires of pointing out that the US claims it wants to maintain the rules-based order in the South China Sea, but it alone among the major maritime powers has refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea — a key part of the rules-based order.
Both countries are engaging in destabilizing behavior — at least from each of their perspectives.
Assertion: ASEAN members support the US aggressive military presence and actions in the South China Sea.
While visiting the region in April 2016, then-US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said countries in the region had been asking for a greater US role in response to anxiety over Chinese actions. He did not identify the country or countries. In keeping with this narrative, the new US National Security Strategy asserts that “States throughout the region are calling for sustained US leadership in a collective response that upholds a regional order respectful of sovereignty and independence.” This is rather ambiguous language. But US officials certainly speak and act as if the US military is warmly welcomed in the region without reservation. But in fact, the increasing aggressiveness of both China and the US (e.g. the pivot or rebalance) has helped split ASEAN on the South China Sea issues and made its members quite wary of being politically squeezed in the middle between the US and China. Both China and the US are pressuring various ASEAN members to support their interests in the South China Sea. This has led to disunity. Cambodia, Laos and now the Philippines apparently support China’s positions or at least do not actively oppose them while Vietnam adamantly opposes them.
Rather than maintenance of the “rules-based order” and US “freedom of navigation” concerns with excessive claims or for ISR purposes, the prime security concern of many Southeast Asian nations is domestic instability. Their concern is that competition between China and the US for influence and military dominance in the region could spill over into these countries’ domestic politics with each supporting its supporters and opposing its opponents — regardless of the regime in power. This happened during the Cold War and may happen again with greater intensity now that many of these governments are hedging between the two. Indeed, with the US political backstop for ASEAN members waning under US President Donald J. Trump, some are recalculating their stance vis-a-vis China.
Some critics say the Pentagon is exaggerating China’s military threat in order to justify their own requests for increased military spending on new defense and weapons systems.
The main interests of the Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea — Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam — to features and maritime space in the South China Sea are quite different in kind and priority. Unlike the US which has no territorial or jurisdictional claims in the area, they want to realize their sovereignty claims and access to maritime resources in what they consider the full extent of their legitimate Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and continental shelves beyond that. But more importantly, they want to avoid getting caught up and having to choose sides in the burgeoning competition and possible violent conflict between China and the US for preeminence in the region.
Assertion: Most Southeast Asian states support US FONOPs in the South China Sea.
This is a common refrain among US officials, but the issue is more complex than simple “myth” or “fact.” There are several dimensions to the concept of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. But the US purposefully conflates them into one concept which it insists is indivisible.
There is freedom of navigation of commercial vessels. All support this and no country — including China — has challenged it or is likely to do so in peacetime. China’s economy depends on it as much or more than that of many Southeast Asian countries.
There are also US FONOPs targeting what the US considers excessive maritime claims. All littoral countries on the South China Sea except Brunei and Singapore have been targets of these FONOPs. Thus, it is safe to assume that they do not support this dimension or enforcement of this concept — either the US legal interpretation thereof, or the US use of threat of force to demonstrate its interpretation.
Then there are US ISR probes primarily targeting China. China does indeed object to and sometimes interferes with them. The US then alleges that China’s interference with these probes in and over its EEZ violates its freedom of navigation. But most Southeast Asian countries have not explicitly taken a position on this aspect of this complex issue, individually or collectively. This is understandable because it does not directly involve them and is essentially a bilateral US-China dispute that can only be resolved between the two parties. So, it depends on what aspect of freedom of navigation one is talking about. But for other than normal commercial freedom of navigation, this assertion is controversial — to say the least. Nevertheless, it appears that the US is not listening carefully to its friends and allies — or hearing only what it wants to hear. They generally do not publicly tell it what it does not want to hear, but probably do so in private. However, in a rare public rebuke of US practice, in August 2017, Philippine Foreign Minister Alan Cayetano scolded those pundits who criticized the presence of Chinese ships in the South China Sea but did not criticize the presence of US warships in the disputed waters.
Assertion: The new US Asia-Pacific defense strategy will focus on making the Indo-Pacific “free and open.”
These are the new buzzwords in Washington and in the capitals of US friends and allies in Asia. They refer to the extension of the US strategic construct to cover the vast area between the western Indian Ocean and the US Pacific shores. But there are several practical problems with this new construct. The threat throughout this region is very uneven and some parts will require more focus than others. There is no immediate threat to a “free and open” Indo-Pacific. Moreover, in practice the US strategic focus on East and Southeast Asia is unlikely to change. As Mike McDivitt of the US Center for Naval Analysis points out: “America’s most pressing security problems are East Asia-Pacific oriented not Indian Ocean related. The main American security threats in Asia — those that could draw it into direct conflict — are in the western Pacific littoral — North Korea, the Taiwan issue, the Sino-Japanese Senkakus dispute, and China’s intentions in the East China and South China Sea. These involve China either directly or indirectly. The US has no major security issues with China in the Indian Ocean region. The US security focus is likely to remain focused on the Pacific portion of the Indo-Pacific.”
Assertion: China’s defense budget increases and military modernization threaten the US.
US officials often point to China’s growing military budget and its military modernization as evidence that it is becoming a challenge to US military supremacy in the region. But the reality is that the US outspends China in the defense sector by about four times. In 2014, the US spent USD 581 billion while in 2016, the Chinese government’s official defense spending figure was USD 146 billion, an increase of 11 percent from a budget of USD 131 billion in 2014.
Some critics say the Pentagon is exaggerating China’s military threat in order to justify their own requests for increased military spending on new defense and weapons systems. Ted Galen Carpenter, Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute says: “I’m not sure why the Pentagon always uses a worst-case scenario when assessing the military threat from China, but it does … I think our military budget is excessive by almost any reasonable standard, for China as a long-term threat … It’s hard to justify spending half a trillion dollars each year because China might emerge as a security challenge twenty or thirty years in the future.”
Richard Bush, Director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, observes: “Most experts would define ‘threat’ to mean a combination of capability and intentions. There’s no question that China is building up its capabilities, but China has displayed no intentions of using those capabilities against the United States.” He adds that: “I believe China has not made the strategic choice of whether it should challenge the United States for dominance in Asia. Those choices are decades away.”
There are many more such assertions on all sides that do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. But that does not mean they will go away. They are too valuable to media pundits and policy makers in their effort to persuade others of their national narrative. Nevertheless, objective analysts would be doing their audiences a favor by not just blindly repeating them and instead separating the wheat from the chaff.