America vs. China: Showdown in the South China Sea?
That is the succinct response of a senior U.S. defense official when asked informally whether the dispatch in October of a U.S. Navy ship within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s newly constructed islands in the Spratly Island chain was a one-off event. Officials in the Obama Administration seem well aware that failure to follow on with their highly publicized freedom of navigation operations will send a signal of irresolve to China and Asia. The sail-through did little to settle the issue of Sino-U.S. tussling over the South China Sea, and the question now, is how will China respond.
From one perspective, the length of time that it took Washington to make the decision to send the USS Lassen near Subi and Mischief Reefs itself is an admission that the Obama Administration remains wary of provoking China. Months of public comments by officials from the president on down resulted in no action until last week, and even then, it was but a lone U.S. destroyer sent to transit what until a few months ago had always been considered international waters. Even worse, claims that the destroyer engaged simply in “innocent passage” as opposed to any legally-allowed military activity on the high-seas further undermines the administration’s argument that it is not tacitly conceding China’s territorial claims.
From another angle, though, the sail-through was an acknowledgment that U.S. policy has failed. China has successfully built and militarized islands on what were formerly shallow reefs, and in doing so far dwarfed the efforts of other claimants in the disputed Spratlys. More pertinently, it has changed the “facts on the ground,” and created for itself power projection bases that greatly extend the reach of the Chinese military.
This is significant because no other nation makes claims nearly as expansive as China does, nor does any other nation have either as many territorial disputes or fields a military that it increasingly active in the region. China is qualitatively different, not just quantitatively, from its neighbors, and its policy of building militarized outposts astride the world’s most heavily-trafficked waterways must be understood as a potential threat to freedom of navigation and the maintenance of peace in Asia. By acquiescing in the existence of these outposts, the region accepts a greater degree of risk today than it did five years ago.
In many ways, the struggle over the Spratlys is less about the United States and China, than it is about China and its neighbors. Few observers expect Washington entirely to abandon its allies, reduce its presence, and alter its maritime operations. It is almost certain, moreover, that the next U.S. president will act with more firmness than the current one.
Yet China’s goal in the short-run is not to get the U.S. Navy to stop transiting the South China Sea. Rather, it is to alter the behavior of its neighbors and force the other claimants in the Spratlys to de facto surrender their positions. Such an achievement would both give China the dominant military position in the region, and also wind up isolating the Americans. After all, if other nations have given up trying to prevent China from altering the balance of power, then how can the United States act alone?
Thus, the assertion by the U.S. official above that Washington is just beginning its policy of pushing back against China. Freedom of navigation operations are as much about politics as they are about military maneuvers. Proving to allies such as the Philippines and potential partners such as Vietnam or Malaysia that the U.S. is serious about upholding international law and preserving the rules-based order that underpins Asian trade, is a crucial step to ensuring that China does not browbeat its neighbors into submission.
That is one reason that Washington needs to operate more with its allies and partners, and should conduct any future demonstrations with other nations who also feel threatened by China’s actions.
And what about increased risk, now that U.S. Pacific Command seems set on further operations? China angrily denounced the U.S. sail-through, and stated that in the future it would seek to prevent such actions. There is indeed a greater chance of an accident or skirmish between China and the United States. Both sides have ratcheted up their rhetoric to the point where even the attempt to peacefully resolve the situation can be interpreted as backing down.
Just as vexing will be “gray zone” situations. U.S. planners must prepare for a scenario where dozens of “private” Chinese fishing vessels seek to impede the safe passage of U.S. ships. Will the U.S. Navy run the risk of damaging or sinking ostensibly civilian vessels, no matter how dangerous to safe navigation?
The proof will be in the pudding. Either the U.S. Navy goes back into contested waters or it doesn't. And either China tries to stop it or not. With the world watching, it will be very clear just who has the greater will.