Why Trump Should Avoid a Showdown in the South China Sea

There has been a spate of recent proposals for aggressive U.S. military action challenging China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea. A prime example is “Standing Up to China Is Not Extremism—It’s Smart Foreign Policy,” by James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara.

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. And it involves convincing the antagonist we’re resolute about making good on our threats.”

They then go on to argue that time-worn canard: that all the United States wants is to preserve the “freedom of the sea.” But China argues that it is not challenging U.S. freedom of navigation itself but U.S. abuse of this right in its exclusive economic zones. The activities of the United States’ intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets include active “tickling” of China’s coastal defenses to provoke and observe a response, interference with shore-to-ship and submarine communications, “preparation of the battlefield” using legal subterfuge to evade the scientific research consent regime and tracking of China’s new nuclear submarines for potential targeting as they enter and exit Yulin Naval Base. In China’s view, these are not passive intelligence-collection activities commonly undertaken and tolerated by most states, nor are they uses of the ocean for peaceful purposes, as required by United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Instead, they are intrusive and controversial practices that China regards as a threat of use of force.

What Holmes and Yoshihara neglect to mention is that because the convention was a “package deal,” non-ratifiers like the United States cannot credibly or legitimately pick and choose which UNCLOS provisions they wish to abide by, deem them customary law and unilaterally interpret and enforce them to their benefit. This is especially true regarding the exclusive economic zones regime, which the convention introduces as sui generis and which does have some freedom-of-navigation restrictions. This includes the duty to pay “due regard” to the rights of the coastal state, including its marine scientific research consent and environmental-protection regimes. Clearly, China and the United States disagree on the meaning of key terms in UNCLOS relevant to the freedom of navigation, which are not defined in the convention. These terms include “other internationally lawful uses of the sea,” “abuse of rights,” ”due regard,” “peaceful use/purpose” and “marine scientific research.”

According to Holmes and Yoshihara, “Statesmen of yore made Moscow a believer in American power and resolve—and largely held the line against communism.” Really? Well, whether or not this assertion is valid, it certainly reveals the nostalgic mindset of the authors. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is over. We are now in the twenty-first century and experiencing the vagaries and complexities of an increasingly multipolar world in which U.S. soft and hard power have relatively declined. It seems Holmes and Yoshihara have some waking up and catching up to do.

Holmes and Yoshihara warn: “If Beijing and Washington want nonnegotiable things a lot, then the Trump administration must gird itself for a long standoff.” But the authors are not advocating a standoff. Instead, they argue for risk-taking in the form of military confrontation. Indeed, they are proposing actions that will likely lead to conflict and even war. But risk-taking—if necessary—can be in many forms and spheres, including in the economic and political/diplomatic spheres, not solely in the military sphere.

The events of the past few months have already caused serious damage to the U.S.-China relationship as well as prospects for security and stability in the region. Whatever trust existed between China and the United States has been eroded. Now, there is a lack of clarity regarding U.S. policy towards China. China’s President Xi Jinping is coming up for “reappointment” in October 2017. He is likely to be especially inflexible on these issues in order to ward off criticism from hard-liners. Already the Chinese military is calling for China to “be prepared to throw punches” regarding increasing U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes from the sea. Certainly, internal political developments in China “cannot form the basis of US foreign policy,” but they should be a factor in the choice of timing and tactics. In this political environment, following Holmes and Yoshihara’s advice would likely lead to political and even military disaster.

What worries me most—and should worry others about this and similar proposals—is that Holmes and Yoshihara are essentially calling for military confrontation and, if necessary, war, even nuclear war. Following their advice would not only threaten the security of the United States and Japan—but that of the entire region and beyond.

Dr. Mark J. Valencia is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He was a senior fellow with the East-West Center for twenty-six years where he originated, developed and managed international, interdisciplinary projects on maritime policy and international relations in Asia. He is now an adjunct senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

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