The United States should play a more active role in assuring allies and deterring China, according to two American experts on Asian security issues.
The Center for the National Interest hosted Abraham Denmark, the Vice President of the National Bureau of Asian Research, and Dan Blumenthal, the Director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise
Institute for a robust and wide-ranging discussion of rising tensions in the South China Sea over territorial disputes. Harry Kazianis, the Managing Editor of The National Interest, moderated the event.
The way China views itself and its role in the region has changed substantially over the last decade and a half, according to both panelists, which has a direct bearing on its behavior vis-à-vis its neighbors. Blumenthal endorsed Robert Kaplan’s view, expressed in his recent book Asia's Cauldron, that what China is doing is perfectly understandable and indeed is similar to U.S. behavior in the 19th and early 20th century when it sought hegemony in the Caribbean Sea and the Americas. China perceives itself as a rising power that is no longer weak and has escalatory dominance over its neighbors in the region, according to Denmark, meaning Chinese leaders believe they can prevail at every level in an escalating conflict. He explained that China therefore seeks to enhance the strength of its sovereignty claims throughout the South China Sea, enhance its abilities to defend these claims, and gain access to resources believed to be in the seabed—even if they are not yet extractable in a way that makes economic sense. While there are factions within China that are more reluctant to embark on a more aggressive path, they have largely been sidelined by the People’s Liberation Army and other voices who favor a harder line on territorial disputes. Denmark mused that U.S. Defense Department reports on Chinese military power might be leading China to think it is stronger than it actually is. He observed that if a country thinks it is stronger than it is, it might be more likely to become embroiled in a conflict.
Key developments in China, its government, and society are closely linked to China’s more assertive behavior in the South China Sea and elsewhere. Denmark explained that Communist Party leaders recognize that an end to their stunning economic growth could pose an internal challenge to their hold on power. They are, therefore, seeking to enhance their nationalist credentials in anticipation of a slower economy. Blumenthal insisted that the Chinese people believe they are in the midst of a “great awakening process” whereby they are less and less willing to be wards of the state.
The panelists both argued for a strong emphasis on assurance and deterrence in the region to prevent conflict. Blumenthal insisted that the South China Sea is a core national interest of the United States. He argued that the United States must “abandon [its] unthinking neutrality” on the territorial disputes and insist on democratic customary means to resolve them. Denmark agreed that international arbitration is the only legitimate means of resolving these disputes. Blumenthal stated, “Every time the Chinese push on a claim that is illegitimate, they should lose ground [diplomatically with the United States].”
Blumenthal said that a return to the status quo should be a U.S. policy, even to include escorted convoys of Vietnamese fishing boats back to their fisheries. Liu Weimin of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China countered that it depends on how one defines the status quo. In China’s view, it is trying to defend the status quo. It is not, he insisted, China’s intention to cause trouble in the South China see. From their perspective, they are reacting to what other countries are doing.
Blumenthal insisted that if the United States does not take the opportunity to create the alliance structure it wants in Asia, it will not happen otherwise. Along similar lines, Denmark observed that a balance of power is not self-implementing. He said that the United States must assure its allies that it will aid them in the event of a crisis or conflict. The fact that other countries are pushing back against Chinese assertiveness, Denmark insisted, provides the United States with opportunities. Denmark also recommended linking American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities with allies in Asia who are in territorial disputes with China.
One of the more significant points of disagreement concerned the issue of deterrence. Both panelists agreed on the need for deterrence. Denmark noted that the United States should find new ways to deter Chinese actions with paramilitary and non-military forces, such as thinly disguised “fishing” vessels that are used to claim territories. He proposed increased reliance on coast guards to “push back” proportionally, but said that the United States has not yet been able to impose sufficient costs to deter China. Similarly, Blumenthal decried the failure of deterrence in the South China Sea. Paul Saunders, the Center’s Executive Director, and a U.S. government official took issue with that view of deterrence. Saunders argued that we must be more precise about what we mean by deterrence. Looking to the Cold War, he listed numerous crises such as the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Hungary, that were not deterred, but that the true purpose of deterrence in that context was the prevent nuclear war and the invasion of Western Europe. By those measures, deterrence was successful. Saunders observed that in the South China Sea, deterrence is unlikely to succeed in discouraging China from assertive territorial claims. Blumenthal conceded that point and agreed that “we’re not there yet.” He did not hold out hope for much progress on U.S.-China ties as far as military matters are concerned. Until we can talk to China about their intentions on the Korean Peninsula, nuclear weapons, cyber, and other important matters, he said, relations are unlikely to improve.