The United States’ announcement that it is considering sending military aircraft and ships within twelve miles of a chain of artificial islands China has built up in the disputed Spratly Islands is a troubling move that escalates the tensions and risks in the South China Sea. It reveals once again Washington’s propensity to be a one-move chess player – the kind of chess player that makes a move without considering how the other side will respond, and what it will do then. The U.S. disbanded the Iraqi army after toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime without asking what these men, unemployed and armed, would do; it fired thousands of civil servants without considering how Iraq’s government agencies would continue to operate without them. In Libya, the United States helped topple Muammar Gaddafi, but it was unprepared to deal with the anarchy that followed.
The obvious question arises: What if China continues its island-building operations despite U.S. warships maneuvering in the neighborhood? Does the United States plan to use force to stop China’s civilian vessels from coming and going? If so, what does the United States expect China’s reaction will be? True, such confrontations are very unlikely to get out of hand. However, history shows that states should be leery of stepping on an escalator without first asking how far they are willing to ride it and how to get off.
The United States and the international community are correctly concerned by China’s moves to change the status quo by creating new facts on the ground, such as increasing the acreage of these islands, building civilian infrastructure on them, or building an airstrip on them. The United States is correct to urge China to work out its differences over the status of these islands with other states that claim territory in the area. (It should ask the same of Vietnam and Taiwan that are also engaged in reclamation in the Spratly Islands.) It would help if the United States ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which provides mechanisms for resolving such disputes; the convention has already been ratified by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – and most other nations of the world (although not Brunei or Taiwan, the other two Spratly Islands claimants).
If China refuses to resolve the matters at hand the United States and its allies might pressure it with non-military means. After all, China has been very careful to avoid involving its military in the contested islands; it has used civilian vessels and China Coast Guard boats. For the United States to involve its military dangerously shifts the conflict from the realm of diplomacy to a realm in which it threatens the use of force.
The first law of applying power is that every time a state makes a threat, which deploying warships clearly entails, but fails to follow through, it loses twice. First, it loses the immediate issue; second, it loses credibility. The costs of losing credibility are high, because these losses make it much more likely that future threats will be ignored and the threatening state will have to actually exercise its power.
The United States’ credibility at present is very low. Not only has Washington allowed both Iran and Bashar al-Assad to run roughshod over one red line after another, but when the U.S. has used force the results have been disastrous. This has been true of all major U.S. military engagements since 1960, with the singular exception of the 1991 operations to roll back Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait. The United States’ stinging defeat in Vietnam has not been forgotten. Its recent engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen have all undermined its credibility. The inability of the U.S. to push back against ISIS – whose fighters number not more than 35,000 and that lacks an air force, navy, and other components of a modern military – further contributes to doubts about American prowess. Its weakness in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East, but rather is noted by friends and adversaries alike in East Asia.
Given these facts, any threat made by the United States in the South China Sea is more likely to be tested than if the United States had been effective in the wars it pursued over the past fifty years; that is, is likely to lead to a conflict whose level of escalation cannot be foreseen.
For all these reasons, the United States should refrain from military threats – unless faced with military threats. It should express its misgivings regarding the reclamation of the contested islands through diplomatic means. If need be cancel a top official’s visit or call its ambassador home for consultations, or make some other such nonmilitary moves – but best place more of its warships in the Middle East, where it is losing both one confrontation after another and its credibility.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Affairs at The George Washington University. He is also the author of Hot Spots and, most recently, The New Normal: Finding a Balance between Individual Rights and the Common Good.