The South China Sea Crisis: Part of a Much Bigger Problem
Forget the crisis in Iraq, Syria, or the ongoing situation in Ukraine. While those issues and parts of the world are clearly important, when we think about the future of international relations, power politics, or the flows of trade investment there is no issue of more importance than the future trends of Sino-U.S. relations. Considering the stakes--like a $550 Billion bilateral trade relationship, the amount of territorial claims and counterclaims Beijing has with multiple U.S. allies (who we would have to go to war for if things got out of control), as well as China’s growing flirtations with a certain neighbor to the north--nothing else really comes close.
The solution by and large is also known: finding a way to respect a rising Beijing’s growing interests in the Asia-Pacific and much wider Indo-Pacific without upending the status-quo or sparking a conflict no one wants.
The preferred American option, neatly summarized by Michèle Flournoy and Ely Ratner for the Center for New American Security, or CNAS, was to imesh China into the international system. As they explain in a recent Washington Post op-ed:
“The current approach has been premised on the idea that China’s integration into the prevailing economic and security order not only is in China’s interest but also benefits the United States and the whole world. Washington has supported China’s accession to leading multilateral institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, and steadily enhanced bilateral relations with Beijing through a panoply of diplomatic engagements, including the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue that will convene in Beijing in July.”
As a result of this embrace, the theory goes, China’s stake in the international system would increase over time. By virtue of self-interest, it would come to see the benefits of contributing to stability and upholding existing rules and norms, such as freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes, even as it became more capable of violating them. This would eventually lead China to emerge as, to use former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick’s indelible phrase, a “responsible stakeholder.”
Unfortunately, America’s preferred strategy when it comes to the rise of China is finished. As the CNAS duo points out:
“Following decades of double-digit economic growth, China’s behavior took a notable turn in the wake of the global financial crisis. Many in Beijing anticipated a rapid U.S. decline, and this triumphalism fused with growing nationalism and wealth to generate a more assertive Chinese foreign policy.”
In the South China Sea, we have perhaps the greatest example of the China challenge--Beijing’s “more assertive” foreign policy--attempts to alter the status quo using non-kinetic methods, a strategy that the U.S. along with its Asian allies have very few ways to negate. China is slowly asserting its claims and authority over an increasing area of this important body of water where trillions of dollars of goods pass through every year, which could also be endowed with plentiful natural resources. Turning the area into de facto Chinese territory would have global ramifications and endanger the very idea of the global commons--something all nations should be concerned about. And while the international community received a bit of good news--that China was ending drilling operations off the coast of Vietnam--Beijing made its position to Washington very clear, according to a report by Reuters: “China told the United States on Tuesday to stay out of disputes over the South China Sea and leave countries in the region to resolve problems themselves, after Washington said it wanted a freeze on stoking tension.”
Several days ago in these pages, I offered the idea of using “lawfare” in the South China Sea as a way to restrain China’s ambitions, a partial answer to the challenge Beijing presents: