The Line That America Shouldn't Cross in the South China Sea

"[I]f the United States insists on publicly denying and routinely penetrating the 12-nm lines, China simply cannot bear the costs of inaction."

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently proposed more-assertive military options for the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (SCS). The new policy would dispatch U.S. naval ships to within 12 nautical miles (nm) of China-controlled reefs, currently being "upgraded" into islands, and conduct flyovers with navy surveillance aircraft.

Crossing the 12-nm Line: From Sinking Costs to Tying Hands

Several days later, a face-off between the two militaries occurred. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army/Navy (PLAN) issued warnings when a U.S. P-8 Poseidon maritime reconnaissance aircraft flew over China-controlled artificial islands. It is not clear whether this will become a sustained pattern. It is particularly worth noting whether the U.S. naval vessels will cross the 12nm line. A warship cruising close to the man-made islands is a much stronger signal and a more real threat, at least in the eyes of the public, compared to a surveillance or anti-submarine plane flying over at 15,000 feet. Whatever the outcome, Secretary Carter's proposal demonstrates that the U.S. military is considering a critical shift in its SCS bargaining strategy, shifting from sinking costs to tying hands.

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American political scientist James D. Fearon examined sinking costs and tying hands, two types of signaling to increase credibility of threat. The first strategy, sinking costs, involves taking actions like troop mobilizations that are financially costly ex ante. The United States has relied on this strategy in recent years, incurring greater military and diplomatic investment to repulse Beijing. The second strategy, tying hands, creates domestic audience costs that the country will suffer ex post if it does not follow through on a commitment. If Washington publically pledges to send naval vessels across the 12-nm line, failing to carry out such action would create domestic political costs. Fearon argues that tying hands generally leaves decision makers better off. At the same time, this behavior heightens the risk of war.

With a new U.S. policy in the SCS based on tying hands and the potential for American surface vessels to routinely cross the 12-nm line, a critical question emerges: how will China respond?

Assessing China's Response: Nationalism, Chicken Game and Conflict Simulation

To predict the likelihood of Sino-American conflict, several factors should be considered—domestic politics, diplomacy and strategy, as well as military assessment. It is difficult to determine how exactly these factors would interact. In general, Fearon appears correct in judging that tying hands increases the risk of war.

Domestic Politics: Rally 'Round the Flag?

There are many issues one can address when considering Chinese domestic politics. One factor is more widely discussed than others: nationalism. The impact of nationalism on Beijing’s security policies, as well as the interactions between the party-state and the public are frequently condensed into an oversimplified linear argument. This argument dictates that the party-state's manipulation makes nationalism dominant in public emotion leading to aggressive foreign policy. The reality is more complex.

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Australian scholars conducted a survey in 2014 on Chinese public opinion on the East China and South China Seas. They found that "the Chinese public appear to be less war-hungry on these disputes than commonly assumed. Only two policies failed to receive majority approval, one was the official shelve dispute policy, the other was send in the troops." Significantly fewer Chinese respondents support using military force, while the majority supported compromise and UN arbitration in territorial and maritime disputes. From the perspective of crisis management, this is all good news. U.S. military planners may be pleased to see that public opinion hinders Beijing's potential assertiveness. However, this is not the whole story.

To better put this survey in the context of the party-state’s relationship with public opinion, we need to consider two other issues. First, this study was conducted during a period of time when China was the primary challenger of the status quo in SCS. There were different ways of conceptualizing and contextualizing what the status quo was. Nevertheless, there was little doubt that China's rising assertiveness challenged the rules of the game or other parties' understandings of the rules. One crucial difference today, however, is that the status quo would be further challenged by the United States if its military stepped into the 12-nm line. It is thus not a stretch to expect that the respondents would be more sympathetic to assertive Chinese options if the study were conducted again.