The US and China Won't See Military Conflict Over the South China Sea
Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The US and China Won't See Military Conflict Over the South China Sea


In a recent piece on the South China Sea disputes, I argued that “the ASEAN claimants are largely staying behind the scenes while external powers take center stage.” Based on recent developments on the South China Sea issue, it seems the U.S. will not only be a ‘director’ but an actor. We saw this clearly on May 20, when the U.S. military sent surveillance aircraft over three islands controlled by Beijing.

However, this does not necessary mean the South China Sea will spark a U.S.-China military conflict.

As a global hegemon, the United States’ main interest lies in maintaining the current international order as well as peace and stability. Regarding the South China Sea, U.S. interests include ensuring peace and stability, freedom of commercial navigation, and military activities in exclusive economic zones. Maintaining the current balance of power is considered to be a key condition for securing these interests—and a rising China determined to strengthen its hold on South China Sea territory is viewed as a threat to the current balance of power. In response, the U.S. launched its “rebalance to Asia” strategy. In practice, the U.S. has on the one hand strengthened its military presence in Asia-Pacific, while on the other hand supporting ASEAN countries, particularly ASEAN claimants to South China Sea territories.

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This position has included high-profile rhetoric by U.S. officials. In 2010, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton spoke at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi about the South China Sea, remarks that aligned the U.S. with Southeast Asia’s approach to the disputes. At the 2012 Shangri-La Dialogue, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta explained how the United States will rebalance its force posture as part of playing a “deeper and more enduring partnership role” in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2014, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called out China’s “destabilizing, unilateral activities asserting its claims in the South China Sea.” His remarks also came at the Shangri-La dialogue, while China’s HY-981 oil rig was deployed in the waters around the Paracel Islands. In 2015, U.S. officials have openly pressured China to scale back its construction work in the Spratly islands and have sent aircraft to patrol over islands in the Spratly that are controlled by China. These measures have brought global attention to the South China Sea.

However, if we look at the practical significance of the remarks, there are several limiting factors. The interests at stake in the South China Sea are not core national interests for the United States. Meanwhile, the U.S.-Philippine alliance is not as important as the U.S.-Japan alliance, and U.S. ties with other ASEAN countries are even weaker. Given U.S.-China mutual economic dependence and China’s comprehensive national strength, the United States is unlikely to go so far as having a military confrontation with China over the South China Sea. Barack Obama, the ‘peace president’ who withdrew the U.S. military from Iraq and Afghanistan, is even less likely to fight with China for the South China Sea.

As for the U.S. interests in the region, Washington is surely aware that China has not affected the freedom of commercial navigation in these waters so far. And as I noted in my earlier piece, Beijing is developing its stance and could eventually recognize the legality of military activities in another country’s EEZ (see, for example, the China-Russia joint military exercise in the Mediterranean).

Yet when it comes to China’s large-scale land reclamation in the Spratly Islands (and on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands), Washington worries that Beijing will conduct a series of activities to strengthen its claims on the South China Sea, such as establishing an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) or advocating that others respect a 200-nautical mile (370 km) EEZ from its islands. Meanwhile, the 2014 oil rig incident taught Washington that ASEAN claimants and even ASEAN as a whole could hardly play any effective role in dealing with China’s land reclamation. Hence, the U.S. has no better choice than to become directly involved in this issue.

At the beginning, the United States tried to stop China through private diplomatic mediation, yet it soon realized that this approach was not effective in persuading China. So Washington started to tackle the issue in a more aggressive way, such as encouraging India, Japan, ASEAN, the G7, and the European Union to pressure Beijing internationally. Domestically, U.S. officials from different departments and different levels have opposed China’s ‘changing the status quo’ in this area.

Since 2015, Washington has increased its pressure on China. It sent the USS Fort Worth, a littoral combat ship, to sail in waters near the Spratly area controlled by Vietnam in early May. U.S. official are also considering sending naval and air patrols within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands controlled by China.

Washington has recognized that it could hardly stop China’s construction in Spratly Islands. Therefore, it has opted to portray Beijing as a challenger to the status quo, at the same time moving to prevent China from establishing a South China Sea ADIZ and an EEZ of 200 nautical miles around its artificial islands. This was the logic behind the U.S. sending a P-8A surveillance plane with reporters on board to approach three artificial island built by China. China issued eight warnings to the plane; the U.S. responded by saying the plane was flying through international airspace.

Afterwards, U.S. Defense Department spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren, said there could be a potential “freedom of navigation” exercise within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands. If this approach were adopted, it would back China into a corner; hence it’s a unlikely the Obama administration will make that move.

As the U.S. involvement in the South China Sea becomes more aggressive and high-profile, the dynamic relationship between China and the United States comes to affect other layers of the dispute (for example, relations between China and ASEAN claimants or China and ASEAN in general). To some extent, the South China Sea dispute has developed into a balance of power tug-of-war between the U.S. and China, yet both sides will not take the risk of military confrontation. As Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it in a recent meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, “as for the differences, our attitude is it is okay to have differences as long as we could avoid misunderstanding, and even more importantly, avoid miscalculation.”

For its part, China is determined to build artificial islands and several airstrips in the Spratlys, which I argue would help promote the resolution of SCS disputes. But it’s worth noting that if China establishes an ADIZ and advocates a 200 nautical miles EEZ (as the U.S. fears), it would push ASEAN claimants and even non-claimants to stand by the United States. Obviously, the potential consequences contradict with China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy.

In February 2014, in response to reports by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun that a South China Sea ADIZ was imminent, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs hinted that China would not necessarily impose an ADIZ. “The Chinese side has yet to feel any air security threat from the ASEAN countries and is optimistic about its relations with the neighboring countries and the general situation in the South China Sea region,” a spokesperson said.

Since the “Belt and Road” is Beijing’s primary strategic agenda for the coming years, it is crucial for China to strengthen its economic relationship with ASEAN on the one hand while reducing ASEAN claimants’ security concerns on the other hand. As a result, it should accelerate the adjustment of its South China Sea policy; clarify China’s stand on the issue, and propose China’s blueprint for resolving the disputes.

The South China Sea dispute has developed a seasonal pattern, where the first half of the year is focused on conflicts, and the second half tends to emphasize cooperation. Considering its timing at the peak of ‘conflict season,’ the Shangri-La Dialogue serves as a hot spot. Since 2012, the Shangri-La Dialogue has become a platform for the U.S. and China to tussle on the South China Sea, with the U.S. being proactive and China reactive. (Incidentally, this partly explains why China is upgrading Xiangshan Forum as an alternative dialogue platform). This year was no exception, as the U.S. worked hard to draw the world’s attention to the Shangri-La Dialogue this year.

But audiences should be aware that aggressive statements at the Shangri-La Dialogue are not totally representative of U.S.-China relations. After all, these statements are made by military rather than political elites. Cooperation will be the key when the U.S. and China have their Strategic and Economic Dialogue in late June, with the ASEAN Regional Forum and other meetings following later this summer.

Dr. Xue Li is Director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Xu Yanzhuo received her doctorate from Durham University (UK) in December 2014 and studies international responsibility, South China Sea disputes, and Chinese foreign policy.

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