US Policy in the South China Sea: Confusing the Possible with the Probable
Photo Credit: US Navy
By Mark J. Valencia

US Policy in the South China Sea: Confusing the Possible with the Probable

Jul. 04, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The war of words and tit-for-tat provocative actions of China and the US regarding the South China Sea has ratcheted up and could spiral out of control. Thus, it is a good time for analysts and decision makers to step back and distinguish between hope (the possible) and reality (the probable). US policy toward China and the South China Sea seems to be confusing and even conflating the two. But hope is neither a strategy nor a policy. It is a desired possible outcome based on emotion. It should not be confused with, nor substituted for a clear-eyed and realistic assessment of probable policy outcomes. As Stephan Walt says: “success or failure in foreign policy depends in good part on whether one’s strategic choices are based on an accurate view of the world and the key forces at play within it. If government officials … simply don’t understand the forces that will determine how other states will respond to whatever actions they take, their policies are likely to fail.”


The US clearly hopes that increasing verbal and kinetic pressure on China will force it to back down and conform to the “existing international order.” On May 3, 2018, the White House announced that there would be “near-term and long-term consequences” for China’s “militarization” there. The Pentagon followed up on this warning by rescinding its invitation for China to participate in the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise. This was followed by a two-ship Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of the Paracels, including Woody Island, a particularly sensitive military outpost.


At the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned China that the rescinding of the invitation was a “relatively small consequence and that there are much larger consequences in the future.” On June 6 — WWII D-Day — US nuclear capable B52 bombers overflew the China-claimed Scarborough Shoal. This was perceived as a response to China’s landing of its strategic bombers on Woody Island in the Paracels. The US is reportedly considering raising the stakes by “intensifying” its FONOPs in the region.


US measures so far — including threatening words and actions — have been spectacularly ineffective and even counterproductive. China has responded in words and actions to the US policy shift and what it sees as a growing US threat. It has not changed its policy and actions in the South China Sea and in fact has enhanced its “defensive” assets and actions there. Its Air Force spokesperson said that the landing (and take off) of strategic bombers at Woody island was training to improve its 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.” At the Shangri-La Dialogue, China’s Lieutenant General He Lei derided Mattis’ comments, saying “any irresponsible comments from other countries cannot be accepted.”

US policy seems to ignore the strategic dialectic and confuses the “possible” with the “probable.” Continuing to do so is likely to lead to policy failure, and even miscalculation and conflict.

China is unlikely to roll back its “gains” and will more likely “go to the mat” over its right to occupy and fortify what it considers its sovereign territory. After repeatedly declaring that sovereignty over its territory — including its features in the South China Sea — is a core national security interest, to do otherwise would be to risk the leadership’s domestic legitimacy. China assumes that the US will not go to war with it over this issue because the question of ownership of the vulnerable flyspecks and the resources there is not a core US national security interest. China has achieved a fait accompli. US policy short of war is unlikely to alter this.


The US also hopes that a Code of Conduct (COC) between China and ASEAN will resolve the issues or at least tamp down tension. But a legally-binding COC is highly unlikely because China will not accept it, and a non-legally binding COC would be of little practical effect. The same international arbitration panel that rejected China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea also determined that the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) was only “political in nature and not legally binding” and therefore irrelevant to the question of the panel’s jurisdiction. Thus, the DOC’s provision that commits the parties “to solve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned” has no legal standing. Given this precedent, a legally non-binding COC is likely to be frequently violated with impunity allowing tension to continue or even rise.


The US continues to assert that the way to resolve the China-ASEAN claimant conundrum is to follow the rule of law. In an ideal world where the rule of law always prevails over national interests, this might produce the hoped-for outcome. But China does not agree with US interpretations of some key provisions in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and will not implement the unenforceable arbitration decision. The US supported the Philippines filing. The lawyers representing the Philippines successfully argued that the issues did not involve sovereignty or delimitation and therefore the panel did indeed have jurisdiction. But this case was a classic example of lawyers focusing solely on the law and ignoring the political implications of an unenforceable legal victory. The predictable political reality is that this has worked to the detriment of their “client” — the Philippines — and ultimately UNCLOS.


Current US policy is based on a lack of appreciation of the fundamental forces at work. The US 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 order” that favors a system developed and sustained by the West and derived in part from an era in which it was colonized and humiliated. China wants respect for its enhanced status and its “core interests” and it wants to bend the system to its benefit, just as the US did during its rise, and still does. Consequently, China and the US do not agree on the interpretation of the rules and norms governing international relations.


The conclusion is that US policy seems to ignore the strategic dialectic and confuses the “possible” with the “probable.” Continuing to do so is likely to lead to policy failure, and even miscalculation and conflict.

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