Why Kissinger’s South China Sea Approach Won’t Work

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Why Kissinger’s South China Sea Approach Won’t Work

Why an ideal approach to resolving the issue might not work so well in practice.

Late last month, media outlets reported that Henry Kissinger, America’s prominent former secretary of state, had said that the U.S. and China should look to the example of Deng Xiaoping when it comes to defusing China’s disputes with other claimants in the South China Sea.

“Deng Xiaoping dealt with some of his problems by saying not every problem needs to be solved in the existing generation,” Kissinger said in Singapore, where he attended Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral. “Let’s perhaps wait for another generation but let’s not make it worse.”

Applied to the South China Sea, that might mean shelving knotty issues surrounding territorial and maritime claims for now and perhaps even focusing on joint development.

Kissinger is hardly the first person to suggest this. Just last month, Kurt Campbell, who was America’s top diplomat in the Asia-Pacific under the Obama administration until 2013, suggested at a keynote address to the Jamestown Foundation’s Fifth Annual Defense and Security Conference that the best we could do in the current environment is “export these problems into the future” and “establish some degree of understanding that the status quo or moderate adjustment of the status quo is in the best interest of all.”

However, while such an approach might be ideal in theory, Campbell himself admitted that in practice, no one is embracing this idea in the South China Sea.

“I think it would be fair to say not only have we been unsuccessful in basically persuading Chinese friends that this is the right approach in the South China Sea and elsewhere; we haven’t had very much success with other countries in that context as well,” he said.

Why is no one buying into this?

Put simply, China has clearly calculated that it has the capabilities now to employ a strategy of incremental assertiveness to change the status quo in the South China Sea and put its nine-dash line into practice. It sees little reason to table the issue until it is satisfied that it has successfully advanced its claims, which Chinese officials say other claimants have been doing in previous years.

Given this reality, other claimants are also beefing up their capabilities and protecting their claims because the situation on the ground is changing so rapidly — as evidenced most recently by China’s land reclamation activities. If these claimants simply wait around, the South China Sea could become closer to a Chinese lake in a few years. As for waiting for another generation, if this is how China is behaving in the South China Sea now, how might it behave with an even stronger military further down the line?

For the United States, waiting around is not an option either, given current realities. Some have suggested to varying degrees that Washington should not let the South China Sea distract it from getting the all-important U.S.-China relationship right. But it takes two to tango. If Beijing is determined to pursue a course in the South China Sea that undermines the interests of U.S. allies and partners in the region, principles enshrined in international law, and broader regional peace and stability, then the United States needs to respond, as it has already begun to do. China’s challenge to order and stability cannot go unchecked, particularly if this is to be a signal of what its rise may portend. Wishing the problem away or holding out in the hope that Beijing will decide to postpone things when it is clearly not doing so is not a viable option.

Kissinger no doubt realizes most of this and was merely stating what an idealized approach might look like. Could we see Washington and Beijing arriving at such an approach anytime soon? That seems highly unlikely. Consider for instance the failure of a much less ambitious version of this approach last year. The United States floated a proposal to “freeze” provocative actions in the South China Sea while progress was made on a binding code of conduct to at least regulate the behavior of various parties. While it was not an outright postponement of the entire issue, it reflected the spirit of Kissinger’s approach in that it attempted to relieve some of the tensions while the issue was resolved further down the line. Close observers will recall that China responded angrily to the proposal, suggesting that the approach constituted outside interference, unfairly targeted Beijing, and would undermine negotiations on a code of conduct.

Of course, there is a chance that China could seek a pause in the South China Sea sometime in the future once it has achieved its objectives, or that the imposition of greater costs on Beijing’s behavior by Washington and other parties leads it to consider a different approach. But for now, with China demonstrating the capacity and the will to advance its incremental assertiveness approach in the South China Sea, and with Beijing seeing the very notion of U.S. involvement in the South China Sea as external interference, it is very difficult to see Kissinger’s ideal approach working anytime soon.