The South China Sea Showdown: 5 Dangerous Myths

Why 'Asia's Cauldron' may only get more dangerous in the years to come. 

Myths about the South China Sea and related U.S.-China strategic interaction have been multiplying in Washington like fruit flies of late. There is the curious notion that China’s recent actions in the South China Sea portend a spasm of aggression spanning East Asia, spilling into the Indian Ocean and then through the Middle East, Africa and beyond.  Almost as fanciful is the idea that Beijing is about to erect figurative toll barriers around the South China Sea, only admitting the ships of nations that agree to perform the infamous 磕头[kowtow].  Presumably, naval vessels requesting admittance would require either multiple prostrations or at least some very fat 红包 [red envelopes].

Some delirious neo-liberals may have actually thought that Beijing would go along with, or at least not react negatively to the decision of the International Tribunal on the Law of the Seas regarding the Philippines arbitration. Another all-too common analytical blunder has been the belief that China’s recent economic “hiccup” will cause it to soften its approach toward the South China Sea. Also comical is the now fashionable notion that U.S. aircraft or vessels patrolling ever closer to China’s reclamation projects would finally bring the Dragon to heel.  All “Dragon Tamers” of the increasingly similar neo-liberal or neo-conservative stripe may cease reading at this point, but fellow realists are invited to press on to consider five really dangerous misconceptions regarding the evolving South China Sea cauldron.

Myth #1: The Obama Administration made a grave mistake during the Scarborough Shoal incident of spring 2012, setting in motion further Chinese “aggression.” 

According to Administration critics, this episode was one of the Administration’s most significant blunders, giving Beijing a “green light” to push hard against various maritime claimants such as the Philippines.  It is actually true that Chinese strategists have studied this case and attempted to draw sweeping conclusions for Chinese maritime strategy, including the delineation of a so-called “黄岩模式” [Scarborough Shoal model]. Is this a grave blow to U.S. national security?  Or did Beijing succeed in adding another rock to it's not particularly impressive marine geology collection?  Even if China can profitably exploit the marine resources in and around this new “prize” – a rather dubious proposition – they most certainly will spend more to protect it than they will gain from drilling next to it.  President Eisenhower famously said that he would not take the U.S. to war over the shape of a helmet (during the Berlin Crisis). American leaders must make such grave decisions. It seems likely that Obama faced a somewhat analogous dilemma during the 2012 Scarborough Crisis and perhaps at other junctures as well.  And like Eisenhower, Obama appears to have concluded that he should not take his country to war with another superpower over relatively trivial matters, such as fishing practices or offshore drilling rights. That wise decision was a message to all adventure-seekers in the South China Sea – not least those in Manila – that the U.S. has far more urgent matters to concern itself with.

Myth #2: China’s building projects in the Spratly’s amount to new “bases” and are extensive enough to alter the regional balance of power. 

Serious military strategists will find this supposition quite preposterous. In the age of precision strike, any and almost all fixed targets can be destroyed with ease, even by lesser militaries.   Much has been made of Beijing’s new opportunity to fly surveillance aircraft, anti-submarine warfare aircraft and even fighter aircraft from the airstrips now being built. Supposedly, China could base small frigates, fast attack craft and even submarines at these new facilities, but that approach still seems far-fetched. Never mind that it would be nearly impossible to store a strategically significant amount of fuel and munitions on these reefs, but such forces would have little and more likely even negative war-fighting value since they would be so exposed to hostile fire. In other words, a squadron of Su-27s flying out of Fiery Cross Reef “base” would most likely be smoking wrecks within hours of the start of any South China Sea conflict. To this author’s reckoning, a facility can be termed a “base” when it has some prospect of playing a useful operational role during armed conflict. By that definition, these facilities are not bases, but rather outposts of a merely symbolic nature.

Myth #3:  The U.S. must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its treaty allies and partners on the issue of the South China Sea.