America’s Strategic Misjudgment and Miscalculation in the South China Sea Issue
By Yongnian Zheng

America’s Strategic Misjudgment and Miscalculation in the South China Sea Issue

Mar. 31, 2016  |     |  0 comments

US action and reaction to the South China Sea issue have indicated that the Americans have misjudged the issue and miscalculated its strategy in the region. America now perceives China as its rival, not a partner, and begins to “contain” China by working closely with its allies and claimant states which have territorial disputes with China in the region. A misjudged strategy will be costly to America.

Geopolitically speaking, China and the US do not have direct geopolitical conflict in the South China Sea, only the US’s self-defined “freedom of navigation.” The freedom of navigation is in China’s national interest too. China today is now the largest trading nation in the world and more than 80 percent of its trade (import and export) go through the South China Sea. It is not in China’s interest to disturb the freedom of navigation in the region as it will hurt China’s economy badly.

US presence in the region is a historical fact recognized by China. While heavy US presence in the region is regarded by some in China as a threat, China does not have its own version of the Monroe Doctrine to drive US influence out of the region. In reality, China welcomes continuous US presence in the region and its provision of public goods, including the freedom of navigation. Chinese leaders have always maintained that they welcome and support a positive role of the US in the region.

However, the US has misjudged China, its intention and its role. It based its judgement on its own historical experience as an expansionistic empire and its deeply rooted great power ideology, and not on China’s diplomatic performance in the region. When George W. Bush came to power, rising neo-conservatives made an attempt to contain China as it perceived China as its competitor and even its enemy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, even though the US no longer employs the neo-conservative rhetoric, the “pivot to Asia” strategy continues to reflect such an ideology. The US has repeatedly emphasized that the South China Sea must be resolved peacefully without a big nation presiding over smaller neighbors.

For years, it was China’s smaller neighbors, particularly Vietnam, who have occupied most of the islands, rocks and reefs, and reclaimed land in the process long before China did.

There is much wisdom in this approach, but it is biased in China’s context. The late Deng Xiaoping had called for “joint development” by putting aside the issue of sovereignty in South China Sea. Deng recognized that sovereignty is a controversial issue which could not be solved; he thus proposed joint development. However, no state responded positively. For years, it was China’s smaller neighbors, particularly Vietnam, who have occupied most of the islands, rocks and reefs, and reclaimed land in the process long before China did. China is not the initiator of facility construction or the one to “carry out militarization of outpost.” China made a diplomatic mistake when it did not condemn such acts internationally; instead, China adopted its conventional “face” diplomacy when it made private requests to these states not to do so. It is thus to China’s chagrin that when it did likewise, these smaller states attempted to solve the issue by “internationalizing” it.

The US has miscalculated its China strategy on several fronts.  First, as a rising power with strong nationalism, China will resist US aggressiveness. While the Chinese public have issues with the Chinese Communist Party and its government over domestic affairs, they stand united behind the government over the South China Sea or any other issues relating to sovereignty and China’s “core” national interests. No Chinese would want their Chinese leaders to “give up” China’s interest in the South China Sea. Any leader who does so is putting the Party’s legitimacy at risk. Simply put, no Chinese leader can afford to fully ignore nationalistic sentiments.

Second, for the Chinese, its government’s action is justifiable as it is merely reacting to what other states have done. During Hu Jintao’s reign, the government was blamed for not taking any effective measures to stop the activities of other states in the South China Sea. Xi Jinping’s pro-active diplomacy, including the perceived “assertive” and “aggressive” action in the South China Sea, is strongly supported by its people.

Third and more importantly, China has the capacity to resist the US. China is now the number two economy in the world. Despite the recent economic slowdown, its growth rate continues to be one of highest in the world. China’s total GDP will become larger than that of the US anytime soon. Although China’s per capita GDP is still smaller than that of the US, but size matters. China’s technological knowhow has reached a stage where breakthroughs are possible.

It benefits the US little with its interference; its intervention has only brought forth a lose-lose situation for all concerned. Historically, China and its small neighbors have co-existed peacefully for thousands of years. It was only when China was colonized by minorities from its north that it became expansionistic. The Chinese does not have a missionary culture and a missionary foreign policy. Its smaller neighbors were well aware of this. To a great degree, the “united front” adopted by the US and its allies over the South China Sea was because of the convergence of US imperial mission and its allies’ maximization of their own national interest. The US is now in a catch 22 situation where it is unable to retreat. While there is national interest convergence between the US and these states in some areas, the maximization of national interests of these states is not necessarily in the interest of the US. For instance, the US and China have common interests in terms of their cooperation over international areas such as Iran and North Korea’s nuclear proliferation and climate change. It is also in US interest to keep China in the currently US-led international system. It would be disastrous if China exits this system and forms its own like what the Soviet Union did during the Cold War.

While there is national interest convergence between the US and these states in some areas, the maximization of national interests of these states is not necessarily in the interest of the US.

The US also misjudged the support it would receive from China’s neighbors. In the latest summit hosted by US President Barack Obama for ASEAN member states at the Sunnylands estate near Palm Springs, California, a joint statement was issued. The statement outlined principles to guide their cooperation in areas like promoting democracy and economic growth, respecting ASEAN centrality, fighting climate change, terrorism and violent extremism, and promoting people-to-people connectivity. Despite tensions in the South China Sea, the statement did not mention China or the SCS. Instead, it stressed principles such as a “rules-based regional and international order”, “peaceful resolution of disputes,” “freedom of navigation and overflight” and “non-militarization and self-restraint.”

Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ quest for the US to deter China from taking further action in the South China Sea evidently did not resonate with those of other ASEAN member states. In reality, most ASEAN states want to maintain friendly relations with China for economic reasons and to continue to benefit from China’s economic rise. They welcome US presence to balance a rising China, in the economic arena but not in the military realm.

Besides, China has adopted a diplomacy quite unlike that of the US. The US had sanctioned Cuba for half a century until recently. For China, despite the very hostile and confrontational political and diplomatic relations with the Philippines in recent years, it has not ceased trade and commercial relations with the country. Many Chinese believe that the worsening relationship with the Philippines is largely attributed to its pro-America president and ties could be normalized as soon as another president takes the helm. In the case of its relations with Vietnam, the two communist parties continue to maintain cordial relations, so have government to government relations. The latest leadership changes in Vietnam also show that pro-US leaders are losing their momentum, and Vietnam’s relations with China is expected to be stable. These developments indicate that China and its small neighboring states are aware of the geopolitical necessity of peaceful co-existence.

On China’s part, it continues to insist on a peaceful resolution to the South China Sea territorial disputes. Despite high pressure from the US, China has shown unwavering strength. US intervention in the South China Sea issue has cost it dearly in most dimensions. For China, what it needs is patience. It does not have an imperial mission. While it does not welcome the US’s provocative military action, it does not have any intention to fight an aimless war with the US either. As one of the oldest civilizations in the world, it draws valuable lessons from its past: that the decline of a great power is not because of the challenges from another rising power, but because of its own misjudgment and miscalculation.

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