No sane Chinese or American official wants a major war between the two countries. Nor would anyone in a responsible position on the U.S. side welcome even a limited military conflict with China, for fear of miscalculation, escalation, and unintended consequences, including the significant endangerment of economic relations. American restraint is demonstrable in the South China Sea (SCS) but it has also characterized the U.S. response to China-initiated situations in the East China Sea and across the Taiwan Strait.
That prudent approach, however, is not sufficiently shared by Chinese government and military leaders. Some seem willing to push the envelope to see just how much aggressive behavior Washington will tolerate in the region. They appear prepared to risk a direct clash at sea or in the air and expect the U.S. to make the necessary efforts to avoid it – for instance, to back away from exercising full navigational and overflight rights.
Beijing’s belief in its new military prowess and in America’s failing will and capabilities emboldens Chinese leaders to persist in their defiance even if planes or ships collide, and potentially, if shots are actually fired. Chinese officials are convinced that Washington fears escalation more than they do and that it will accept a compromise resolution rather than take U.S. resistance to the next level.
But if Washington’s present grasping for an SCS off-ramp leaves China in even a marginally better position than the status quo ante, it will be seen – not just in Beijing – as vindication of its more aggressive actions and evidence of faltering U.S. resolve. America, and countries that depend on its security guarantees, will have been taught a lesson. To pursue its regional and global ambitions, China will no longer feel compelled to heed Deng Xiaoping’s caution to “bide our time, hide our capabilities.”
The blow to U.S. prestige and security credibility will exceed that suffered after the Scarborough Shoal incident in 2012. Washington helped mediate a diplomatic solution to the tense China-Philippines standoff, but then did nothing when China violated the agreement and effectively seized the disputed reef from America’s treaty ally. Washington rationalized that it had no interest in the actual outcome of the sovereignty dispute as long as it was determined peacefully and bilaterally. Yet, even that limited U.S. interest was defeated by China’s unilateral quasi-military action, and Washington accepted it rather than confront Beijing.
In the unfolding crisis in the SCS, however, the U.S. no longer has the option to look away. As Defense Secretary Ashton Carter declared at the Shangri-La defense ministers’ meeting last week, the United States has a direct and enduring interest in freedom of navigation and overflight in all international waters and airspace.
Beyond self-interest, America has kept the maritime and aviation public commons open to all nations for more than seven decades. Allowing China unilaterally to carve out a gigantic exception to Washington’s global role in the vital SCS shipping lanes would constitute an incalculable diminution of U.S. power and prestige.
If American will not uphold its own proclaimed navigational and overflight rights, will Japan believe it would be more willing to risk conflict with China by defending the “pile of rocks” known as the Senkakus?
The way out of this fraught dilemma is to follow the frequent admonition of Deng, Mao Zedong, and other Chinese leaders: “It is up to the one who tied the knot to untie it.” That would clearly be China in this case. Yes, it will mean an inevitable loss of face for a government that is adept at playing the face card to avoid accountability for its own reckless actions. Better from Beijing’s viewpoint to compel others to manage some tactical retreat to rescue China’s ill-placed and self-serving pride.
But anything less than implementation of Washington’s declaration of total and free access to the waters and airspace of the South China Sea will be understood in Beijing and capitals around the world as a further erosion of U.S. credibility. And credibility is the very linchpin of America’s pivot to Asia. Loss of our most valuable asset in confronting the increasingly non-peaceful rise of China will surely unbalance the rebalance.
For regional and international security, it is important that at the denouement of the current crisis, China will have taught itself a corrective lesson.
Joseph A. Bosco is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of Defense from 2005-2006.