The South China Sea: Are Pundits and Politicians Pushing the US into War?
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By Mark J. Valencia

The South China Sea: Are Pundits and Politicians Pushing the US into War?

Jun. 05, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Over the past few years, bashing China for its policy and actions in the South China Sea has become quite common in the US foreign policy community. More recently, the criticism has become ever more strident and dangerous. In some instances, it even borders on “yellow journalism” — which in the past has prodded the US into war.

An example of an extreme view is a piece by former US air force intelligence officer Robert E. McCoy in the Asia Times entitled “China’s missiles in the South China Sea mean girding for war.” In an outburst of hyperbole, he warns that “China has flung down the gauntlet effectively issuing a call to arms,” and tauntingly asks if the US is “so afraid of a military confrontation that [it is] willing to concede an entire sea to Beijing through inaction?”

Gordon Chang, a well-known American Asia policy expert alleges that China is “itching for a confrontation.” Chang goes on to say that China wants more than just to provoke a confrontation — it wants to “pull the trigger.”

Other “experts” in Washington DC have trumpeted the China “threat.” For example, the AMTI/CSIS released a report, “China’s big three near completion,” detailing China’s latest construction on the features it occupies in the South China Sea. In what has become a predictable pattern, some US and foreign media used the information to bolster what seems to have become their campaigns to convince the Trump administration that China presents an imminent threat to US interests there — including freedom of navigation. It also continues to misleadingly conflate China’s activities in the Paracels with its activities in the Spratlys.

Accompanying these cries that “the sky is falling” has been a spate of proposals for aggressive US military action challenging China’s claims and actions in that Sea. One example is an article in The National Interest by James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara entitled “Standing up to China is not extremism — It’s smart foreign policy.” According to Holmes and Yoshihara, the new administration “must relearn the art of deterrence, and to deter Chinese aggression the administration must accept that hazards come with the territory.” For them, such deterrence “involves fielding military power sufficient to make good on the threat, whether the requisite capabilities be nuclear or conventional.” In a posting in The Diplomat, US Navy Captain Tuan N. Pham also urges the US not to “back down” in the South China Sea.

In a recent piece in War on the Rocks, Ryan Martinson and Andrew Erickson call for the US to “re-orient” its sea power to challenge China in the South and East China Seas. Specifically, they propose that the US place “forces on the front lines where they can play a more direct role helping other states counter China’s seaward expansion.”

Even the Washington Post has jumped on the bandwagon. A May 23, 2018 editorial criticizes the landing of nuclear-capable bombers “on an island in the South China Sea” and claims “it was another significant step in Beijing’s militarization of disputed territories in the region.” That island was Woody Island in the Paracels — an island group far to the northwest of the Spratlys, much closer to China and occupied solely by China since 1974. They are a completely different group from the Spratlys and have a quite different legal and strategic character. The editorial further demonstrates ignorance of the legal situation by stating that an “international tribunal rejected its sweeping claim to them [the Paracel and Spratly islands]. This is simply not so. The tribunal did not address the question of sovereignty over the features [except indirectly for a few]. The editorial then repeats the AMTI/CSIS prediction that Chinese war planes “would soon be spotted on the long runways constructed in the Spratlys,” and adds that “the bombers could cover much of the South China Sea—through which up to one third of global trade passes.” The editorial concludes by criticizing the US for not stopping China’s advance and implicitly urges the US to take military action against China.

These examples offer a glimpse into the wave of anti-China bias washing across the US foreign policy community. The scaremongers are finding resonance with some members of Congress and the Trump administration. On May 3, the White House announced that there would be “near-term and long-term consequences” for China’s “militarization” of the South China Sea. Sure enough, a flurry of anti-China actions and statements followed. On May 23, the Pentagon announced that it has withdrawn an 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 behavior [in the South China Sea] is inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the RIMPAC exercise.” It followed this public slight four days later with a provocative two-ship Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of the Paracels, including Woody Island, thus “violating” China’s regime of required prior permission for warships to enter its territorial waters. The US warships were reportedly maneuvering in China’s territorial sea and were thus not in innocent passage.

If so, this would imply that the US does not recognize the features as “legal islands.” Woody Island is China’s largest military outpost in the South China Sea and where it had recently landed an H-6K strategic bomber — and is thus presumably particularly sensitive. The US ships were confronted by Chinese warships that according to the US behaved in an “unprofessional manner.” On May 29, US Defense Secretary James Mattis said the US would continue to confront China’s “militarization” of its occupied islands. On June 1, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, he declared that “despite China’s claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion.” On May 30, retiring PACOM Commander Admiral Harry Harris said “China remains our biggest long-term challenge. Without focused involvement and engagement by the United States and our allies and partners China will realize its dream of hegemony in Asia.”

China played right into the US public relations offensive when its Air Force said that the landing of the strategic bomber at Woody island was “training … to improve our 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”. These implied threats are in response to what it views as the threats implied by US actions there. These misperceptions may be on the verge of spiraling out of control.

If the US steps-up its naval confrontation of China, it risks further straining frayed relations, destabilizing the “new normal,” and inviting China’s political, economic and military response while garnering little or no support from Southeast Asian nations that it claims to be defending.

Meanwhile, on May 24, the US Congressional Research Service released a report criticizing China’s policy and actions in the South China sea. And on May 25, three US senators wrote a letter to Mattis praising the Pentagon’s retraction of the RIMPAC invitation to China and calling for more action to respond to China’s deployment of advanced weapons systems to three features that it occupies in the Spratlys.

US “experts” and empathetic politicians and officials have verbally thrown everything at China including the proverbial “kitchen sink.” They have accused China of being assertive and aggressive; violating the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC); not conforming to international rules and norms; militarizing the features; generating instability; and threatening freedom of navigation. Let’s examine these allegations regarding China’s behavior that are the basis for this US response.

“Assertiveness and aggressiveness”

China’s policy and actions in protecting what it sees as its sovereignty and resources against rival claimants have indeed been both assertive and aggressive. But so has been those actions of Vietnam as well as US naval activity targeting China. Overall China has demonstrated relative restraint vis-à-vis provocative, assertive and aggressive US FONOPs and ISR probes.

“Violating the DOC”

In other claimants’ eyes, China has indeed violated the DOC. But other claimants — like Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam — have also violated its self-restraint provision by continuing their reclamation and construction activities after the 2002 agreement. More significant to China, the Philippines — by filing its complaint against China under UNCLOS — violated what China considers the most important DOC provision of all — the commitment “to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.”

“Not conforming to international rules and norms”

China and the US do not agree on what many of these rules and norms are or should be. The US basically wants to strengthen the existing status quo in which it is the dominant actor and patron. China believes it is being constrained by the existing US-led international world order that favors a system developed and sustained by the West and which contributed to its past colonization and humiliation. China wants respect for its enhanced status and its “core interests” and wants to bend the system to its benefit just as the US did during its rise, and still does.


“Militarization” means different things to China and the US. To China, its emplacement of “defensive” weapons does not constitute “militarization.” In China’s view, the US has clearly “militarized” and continues to “militarize” the region with its forward deployed troops, assets, and patrols, bolstered by the “rebalance” of its defense forces. As China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said: “The United States military presence in the South China sea is greater than that of China and other countries that surround the seas combined”. Both China and the US are “militarizing” the South China Sea.

“Violating freedom of navigation”

The US maintains its FONOPs in the South China Sea are intended to preserve and protect freedom of commercial navigation for itself and others that is threatened by China’s claims and actions. But China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation and is unlikely to do so in peacetime. The problem is that the US deftly conflated freedom of commercial navigation with a military priority — freedom of navigation for its ISR vessels and aircraft. In so doing, it makes frequent reference to UNCLOS which it has not ratified and thus has little credibility interpreting it to its own benefit. China does object by word and deed to what it perceives as US abuse of “freedom of navigation” and its thinly veiled threat to use force to defend its interpretation. As Australian analyst Sam Bateman says: “some dialogue between these powers to reach a common understanding of issues of disagreement would be an important regional confidence-building measure.”

Some argue that stepping up the US naval confrontation of China would “portray America as a protector of the vulnerable, a country true to its commitments, and a guarantor of the international–rules based order” But it is, or even more likely, to be viewed as destabilizing outside interference in regional affairs, acting in its own self-interest, and attempting to preserve its role as regional hegemon.

The US is overreacting and that is likely to be counterproductive. If the US steps-up its naval confrontation of China, it risks further straining frayed relations, destabilizing the “new normal,” and inviting China’s political, economic and military response while garnering little or no support from Southeast Asian nations that it claims to be defending. China may well deny future US Navy port visits, enhance its military assets on the features it occupies, and increase People’s Liberation Army Navy and Air Force close in “observation” of future FONOPs and ISR probes.

Clearly some analysts and politicians are trying to goad the US into military action which could lead to war over tiny indefensible features and resources in the South China Sea even though there is no threat to a US core interest. It is the job of the US defense and intelligence community to paint and plan for the worst-case scenario. But objectivity, fairness and balance are the supposed ethics of independent analysts. That is increasingly not the case regarding analysis of relations between China and the US in the South China Sea.

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