Think Again: Myths and Myopia about the South China Sea

The "chessboard metaphor" won’t help us understand the game China is playing.

As the world sets the spotlight on the South China Sea, myths about this issue also proliferate. Some myths exist because we lack knowledge. But many other myths persist because we use the wrong lens to look at things. The South China Sea conundrum is a challenging story to decipher because most of the common lenses we use do not get us to see the essence of this story.

For example, thinking in black-and-white terms is a useful way to simplify and highlight things, but this lens becomes useless for seeing what happens in the South China Sea, because things there mostly happen in gray zones. Another good way to understand human activities is to think of them as the search for resources. Much of what nations do is a struggle over resources, but if we focus on natural resources, we will lose sight of a key resource in the South China Sea: location.

We often use chess as a metaphor for the game nations play, and the chessboard is our common image of the arena where nations interact. But this metaphor won’t help us understand the game China is playing. As David Lai and Henry Kissinger have observed, Chinese strategy resembles not chess but a different Chinese board game named weiqi (which literally translates as the “game of encirclement” and is known in English under its Japanese name “go”). The underlying idea of weiqi is the same as that of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Rather than concentrating on frontal battles with the enemy, the idea is to manipulate the propensity of things so that the situation will work for you. As I have shown in the National Interest, what China has done in the South China Sea is a classic example of how to play weiqi masterfully.

In a recent article, Lyle Goldstein has taken up the laudable job of debunking some of the common myths about the South China Sea. He also invited fellow realists to join the discussion. As a South China Sea watcher and a realist myself, I am delighted to accept his invitation. I will present a different realist view, but my purpose is not to make a difference. What I want is to understand what really is going on and its implications for strategy.

Scarborough Shoal

Goldstein dismisses the idea that “The Obama Administration made a grave mistake during the Scarborough Shoal incident of spring 2012, setting in motion further Chinese ‘aggression.’” His criticism, however, veers far away from the real target and, in the process, propagates two other myths. The first myth is a black-and-white situation where war was the only alternative to what the Obama Administration did. It is probably true, as widely reported, that the Philippine government sought Washington’s military backup under the U.S.-Philippine mutual defense treaty. But this does not mean that the United States had only two choices: going to war to defend its ally or remaining neutral in the conflict. As Bonnie Glaser comments in her tweet, “[the] US had options other than going to war over Scarborough Shoal. [The] US inaction had consequences.” The cited target of Goldstein’s criticism, Ely Ratner’s article titled “Learning the Lessons of Scarborough Reef,” also makes it clear that “the threat of large-scale conflict is remote. Instead, regional instability is more likely to derive from disputes and contestation occurring in a gray zone between war and peace.”

The biggest mistake that the Obama Administration made in handling the Scarborough standoff is its acceptance of the role of an honest broker. This is a lofty role, but Washington is structurally ill positioned to play it. The steep asymmetry of capability between China and the Philippines means that by acting as an honest broker, Washington will play into China’s hands and further isolate the Philippines. Indeed, Beijing at times refused to talk to Manila and used the United States to pressure the Philippines to back down. The asymmetry of trust (Manila trusted the mediator much more than Beijing did) also had consequences. Manila apparently interpreted a deal brokered by Washington (and a junior Philippine senator named Antonio Trillanes) as a reciprocal vacation of the area, but in reality Beijing removed only some of its ships while maintaining control of access to the area.