Asia Defense

How the US Outplayed China in the South China Sea

A recent move by the U.S. Pacific Command is a good example of what Washington should do.

How the US Outplayed China in the South China Sea
Credit: U.S. Navy Photo

What separates the aggressive move from the modest one?  Or the unnecessarily risky move from the prudent one?  Context.  Last week, the recently appointed commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, joined a routine surveillance mission in the South China Sea conducted by a U.S. P-8 aircraft.  Four-star admirals don’t routinely join such frontline missions, of course, which may lead some to view the move as confrontational and risky.  To the Chinese, it was “irresponsible and dangerous.”

But this was a single well-played move in an iterative and indirect competition with high stakes.  The Chinese are understandably upset because it shifts the terms of the next move in their disfavor, creating a circumstance that requires them to adapt expectations.  Moves like the one taken last week, putting a high-level U.S. commander in harm’s way but in a highly anodyne way, help (temporarily at least) stack the deck in favor of the United States and the status quo.

Why?  Because it was a signal of U.S. resolve without deterrence.  America’s interest in the South China Sea is stability—not ownership—and the most assured path to continued stability will depend on precisely the balance Swift managed with that P-8 mission: establishing new precedents that favor the status quo while avoiding circumstances of immediate deterrence.  In effect, the United States must shape the context in which future possible confrontations take place.

The U.S. defense community places a great deal of emphasis on deterrence, but deterrence (the immediate, game theoretic kind) is often a loser’s game.  It’s like going to the casino and expecting to beat the house at blackjack; it can be done, but the odds are generally against you.  And the odds are against you because the threat of force as a means of convincing someone not to do something—especially when that something is very specific—is fraught for a number of reasons.  Establishing the credibility of the threat is hard.  Even if they believe your threat is credible, they may believe that the balance of interests is worth them hazarding the risk of violating your proscription.  And even if you’ve successfully deterred something in a specific instance, you’ve almost inevitably generated second-order consequences that challenge you anew; neither people nor states suffer under the boot of others kindly, or for very long.

That’s not to say that acts of immediate deterrence aren’t sometimes necessary, or that a general posture of deterrence—that is, signaling your ability to threaten something without issuing direct threats—isn’t a reasonable way of inducing caution in a would-be adversary.  When something you value is in jeopardy, appeals to community, norms, or the rule of law may be irrelevant in the heat of the moment; sometimes you just have to be willing to fight.

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But just as walking around seeking out a fight is reckless, so too is seeking out immediate deterrence opportunities.  And that’s why Swift’s P-8 move was so appropriate—it wasn’t immediate deterrence; it wasn’t America seeking a fight.  Swift’s P-8 move contributes to “facts on the ground” in favor of the status quo.  Southeast Asian maritime services are ill equipped to challenge the Chinese coast guard, let alone the PLA Navy.  So if a Southeast Asian nation tries to create new precedents with China it may wind up in a confrontation it can’t handle.  But the U.S. military can, and China knows it.  The U.S. stance on surveillance in international waters is clear, its missions in the South China Sea routine, and putting a four-star admiral in that potentially vulnerable space proves it.

This is the type of activity the United States should pursue in the South China Sea.  If acts of immediate deterrence become necessary, the stakes, historical precedent, international opinion, and geographic placement of local military forces should favor the United States. U.S. peacetime efforts should be shaping the context of future potential confrontations in this way, so that if it enters a deterrence game, its chances of winning are much improved.

This also offers a heuristic for evaluating different policy decisions relating to the South China Sea. Armed escorts for fishing and commercial cargo ships is too confrontational for now; it’s like needlessly seeking a fight.

But conducting surveillance flights inside the 12-nautile mile limit of Chinese reclaimed land features (which the United States doesn’t recognize) is routine, non-escalatory, and reinforces precedents favoring the status quo that nobody else is really capable of doing.   That’s the next logical step in the South China Sea’s emerging strategy game of indirect competition.