The South China Sea: Realpolitik Does Indeed Trump Moralpolitik
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Mark J. Valencia

The South China Sea: Realpolitik Does Indeed Trump Moralpolitik

May. 21, 2018  |     |  0 comments

In a recent posting in The Diplomat, Tuan N. Pham denies that realpolitik can triumph or has triumphed over moralpolitik and urges the US not to “back down” in the South China Sea (SCS).

In what seems to be part of a “campaign” to paint China in the worst possible light, Pham takes particular issue with the assertion that “the ongoing campaign which asserts America is not going to rescue the other (SCS) claimants from perceived intimidation and coercion … realization that the United States will not be coming to the rescue is belatedly beginning to sink in throughout the region and misplaced hope is being replaced by bitter disappointment and even despair.”

I quote his concern with this assertion at length because I am the one who made it.

Although it may come as a surprise to Pham, I and my views are not part of an “ongoing campaign.” These are my views, and mine alone, arrived at through logical analysis. His assumption that they are part of a “campaign,” the depth of his angst, and his plaintiff plea for US military involvement against China’s actions, support my contention that “hope is being replaced by bitter disappointment and even despair.”

But this is only one of the many problems with Pham’s anti-China polemic. I will address others in the rough order of their appearance in his essay.

Pham cites the reported “challenge” by China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels in the SCS to Australian navy vessels, as well as Chinese combat naval exercises there as part of “a calculated campaign by Beijing to determinedly reassert and preserve respectively its perceived sovereignty and territorial integrity in SCS through words and deeds.” But as retired Australian Commodore Sam Bateman suggests, this so-called “challenge” is likely much ado about nothing.

If Pham knows more about the “challenge” than has been publicly revealed, then he should share it and what China did that was “illegal.” Otherwise, without knowing where, why and how the “challenge” was issued, there is insufficient information to even determine if it was a “challenge”, let alone anything out of the ordinary. When naval vessels encounter each other, they often ask their opposite number to identify themselves and the purpose of their presence — especially if one is undertaking exercises. The questioned vessel does not have to respond if it so chooses. As for the show of force by the PLAN, Pham neglects to mention the near simultaneous presence in the Sea of three US Navy carrier strike groups and their exercises and port visits there in the same context.

Pham next asserts that the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration of Conduct (DOC) obligates China (and other claimants) “not to change any geographic features in the SCS.” He adds that China “broke the 2015 agreement between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to not militarize these Chinese-occupied geographic features.” First, the 2002 DOC does not contain this language, and Pham is subjectively interpreting its language for his own purposes. This interpretation is apparently not shared by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan. All occupants of the features in the South China Sea have altered them to some degree since their agreement on the DOC. Second, according to China, President Xi Jinping agreed to no such thing. This statement repeats a biased interpretation of President Xi’s statement regarding the “militarization” of the features. His original quote has been translated into English as: “Relevant construction activities that China are undertaking in the island of South — Nansha [Spratly] Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarization.”

The rapid decline of US soft power in the region is not due as much to “American acquiescence and accommodation” to China as it is to American political arrogance and cultural chauvinism that generated a lack of respect for its allies and “friends” in the region, and their peoples.

This is considerably more ambiguous than many China critics would have it. Chinese spokespersons have since implied that if the US continues its military probes, exercises, and Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) challenging China’s claims there, China will have to prepare to defend itself. Given that the US has continued these missions, it should come as no surprise that China has responded as it said it would.


With seeming approval, Pham also paraphrases the newly confirmed US Pacific Commander Admiral Philip S. Davidson asserting that “Beijing has built-up enough military infrastructure in the SCS to completely control the disputed waterway short of war.” But as Ralph Cossa, President of Pacific Forum CSIS, says, there is little to worry about — at least for the US: “The South China Sea is not and will not be a Chinese lake and the Chinese, even with artificial islands, cannot dominate the sea or keep the US Navy out of it.”


Admiral Davidson’s statement also neglects the vulnerability of China’s installations to the US capability to destroy them virtually at will. In any conflict scenario, these facilities would be indefensible in the face of US long-range bunker-busting cruise missiles fired from destroyers and submarines, as well as from missiles and glide bombs launched from manned aircraft and drones. According to retired Admiral and former Director of US National Intelligence Dennis Blair: “The Spratlys are 900 miles away from China for God’s sake. Those things have no ability to defend themselves in any sort of military sense. The Philippines and the Vietnamese could put them out of action, much less us.”


Pham laments at length that the “years of American acquiescence and accommodation may have eroded the international rule of law and global norms; diminished the regional trust and confidence in US preeminence, presence, and constancy; weakened some of the US regional alliances and partnerships; undermined Washington’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security, stability, and leadership; and perhaps even emboldened Beijing to expand its global power and influence and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence.”


The rapid decline of US soft power in the region is not due as much to “American acquiescence and accommodation” to China as it is to American political arrogance and cultural chauvinism that generated a lack of respect for its allies and “friends” in the region, and their peoples. Its hypocrisy, interference in domestic politics and support of brutal dictators did not help. It is now beginning to experience the inevitable “blow back” and its reign as regional hegemon may be coming to an end. It may well eventually be replaced by China in the region — but for Pham to assert that China will attain “global preeminence” is premature at best. Indeed, if China does not learn from the American experience, it may well repeat its mistakes and suffer a similar fate.


Pham castigates a China that “incrementally and quietly builds concepts, principles, vocabulary, and finally justification for pursuing its national interest and global ambitions.” Of course it does. But what major power does not do this? Similarly, Pham is concerned that Xi said: “The Chinese people and the Chinese nation have a shared conviction: not one single inch of our land will be or can be seceded from China.” But what government leader could say otherwise?


Regarding China’s and the US’ different concepts of “freedom of navigation,” Pham and I have debated this before and I will not rehash that here except to reiterate that the two countries — one a ratifier of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which elaborates the concept — and the other not, differ on what activities are and are not encompassed by the term.


Pham concludes his polemic by repeating his hyperbolic warning that “For Beijing, controlling the SCS is [a] step toward regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence.” Perhaps, but “there is many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.” While Pham and many others may not “like” it, realpolitik has indeed triumphed over moralpolitik in the South China Sea.

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