Is This the United States’ Grand Plan for Responding to China in the South China Sea?

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Is This the United States’ Grand Plan for Responding to China in the South China Sea?

Is the United States building a coalition of democracies to preserve order and international law in the South China Sea?

Is This the United States’ Grand Plan for Responding to China in the South China Sea?

The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) and Japanese Maritime Self-defense Force Akizuki-class destroyer JS Fuyuzuki (DD-118) sail alongside the Indian Deepak-class fleet tanker INS Shakti (A 57).

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Chad M. Trudeau/Released

It’s certainly been an interesting week in the South China Sea, with reports that China moved coast guard vessels into Jackson Shoal, driving Filipino fishermen out and effectively asserting control over that feature. China’s latest bout of assertion comes not long after it re-stationed J-11 fighters and HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems on Woody Island, days after ASEAN leaders met with U.S. President Barack Obama in the United States.

On Wednesday, two reports caught my eye that reveal a growing coalition and network of Asian powers to counter Chinese assertiveness in Asian waters, certainly the South China Sea. Incidentally, both these reports stem from comments and observations made recently by Admiral Harry B. Harris, the outspoken head of U.S. Pacific Command, at a security conference in New Delhi, India. (Harris’ prepared remarks are available here.)

The first, reported in Reuters, notes that India, the United States, and Japan will be holding their first trilateral naval exercise in the South China Sea, off the northern coast of Philippines. While a location isn’t specified for the exercise, it is likely that it will take place either in or off Subic Bay, where the United States once had a permanent naval base and now enjoys base access rights under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Act (EDCA) with the Philippines.

Harris underlined India’s record with international law and maritime disputes to explain Washington’s interest in having New Delhi participate in the exercise: “While some countries seek to bully smaller nations through intimidation and coercion, I note with admiration India’s example of peaceful resolution of disputes with your neighbors in the waters of the Indian Ocean,” he said.

The second report, in the New York Times, cites Harris bringing up a concept in Asian security that’s been out of vogue for nearly a decade, namely the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) between the United States, Australia, Japan, and India. In a commentary in 2014, I’d declared the QSD “gone and forgotten.” Harris’ comments suggest my eulogy may have been premature. The QSD was actually a pet project for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his first stint leading Japan, back in 2006-2007. He’ll be glad to see it back on the docket.

Abe, who came to office in 2006 with a pessimistic view of China’s rise, saw Beijing as a threat to Japanese interests and proposed the QSD as a means by which to spur dialogue on sustaining Asia’s status quo security apparatus. China saw the initiative as a conspiracy by a concert of democracies to inhibit its “peaceful rise” (that language was very much in vogue at the time), and the initiative fell apart. Kevin Rudd’s Australia, in particular, was hesitant to risk good ties with China over the QSD, which at the time had a modest scope. Abe himself left office after a lackluster one-year term.

Taking Harris’ recent comments on the possibility of U.S.-India-Japan trilateral exercises in the South China Sea and a possible resumption of the QSD nearly a decade later together, it’s clear that the United States is working to coalesce multiple networks of like-minded Asian states concerned about China’s revanchism in the South China Sea. The trilateral exercise in particular, if it does come to pass, will be a major moment in the evolution of multilateral security activities in the South China Sea.

That such an exercise is openly under consideration reveals the unusual pace at which the trilateral convergence between Washington, Tokyo, and New Delhi has been accelerating over the past year, since the center-right government of Narendra Modi came to power in New Delhi. Since then, the stakes have grown ever higher in the South China Sea amid China’s construction of artificial islands. As I reported last fall, the United States held its first-ever exercise with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces in the South China Sea in October 2015, just days after its first freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near a Chinese artificial island and months after the conclusion of new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines that envisaged a more global and cooperative role for the decades-old alliance.

Bringing India into the fold in the South China Sea just months after the first U.S.-Japan bilateral exercise in the South China Sea underlines the extent to which both Tokyo and Washington see New Delhi as a valuable regional actor. Last year, maritime cooperation between the three increased as they moved to formally trilateralize the Malabar series of naval exercises, which had long been a U.S.-India bilateral affair. Washington’s interest in networking India into its maritime activities with Japan speaks to an increasing view in the United States that India, in matters of maritime security, freedom of navigation, and humanitarian assistance, is close to as good as an ally. (New Delhi continues to have its differences bilaterally with Washington and Tokyo on a narrow range of issues.)

Harris’ remarks on the QSD, if they reflect the Obama administration’s views, only serve to further emphasize this. Within the QSD, two participants, Japan and Australia, are allied mutually with the United States, though not between themselves. India, meanwhile, is a strategic partner for all three states, but not a formal ally to any.

Should the QSD lead to greater coordination and multilateral patrols in the South China Sea, the Western Pacific, and possibly even the Indian Ocean, we could be witnessing the emergence of a true “concert of democracies” to underwrite the status quo regional order in the Asia-Pacific. For China, this would represent the realization of a long-standing fear, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy as it ramped up its revanchist activities in the East and South China Seas.

Moreover, Harris’ remarks have led me to reconsider my skepticism for the prospect of joint U.S.-India patrols in the Indian Ocean. While I still remain unconvinced that New Delhi is ready to engage in joint patrols with Washington in the South China Sea (certainly FONOPs), an exercise with Washington in the South China Sea would certainly open the door to that eventually.

I do think that any U.S.-Japan-India exercise in the South China Sea would have a relatively modest humanitarian assistance/disaster relief focus–similar to last August’s trilateral exercise between the U.S., Filipino, and Japanese navies, which also marked a first. Between Harris’ remarks and recent comments by the U.S. ambassador to India expressing hope that joint U.S.-India patrols “will become a common and welcome sight throughout Indo-Pacific waters,” it’s evident that Washington is keen to enlist New Delhi.

Finally, I wonder about the timing of a resumption of the QSD and trilateral exercise in the South China Sea. Harris offered few specifics in this regard, but it seems likely that the United States is positioning itself to lead a strong multilateral response to Chinese bad behavior in the South China Sea after what it anticipates will be a fairly clean sweep for the Philippines in its pending arbitration case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague.

Once that decision, which is expected in May 2016, comes in China’s behavior in the South China Sea will be directly in contravention of an international legal ruling, giving the United States and its networked partners the necessary cover to sharply increase multilateral activities in the South China Sea.

The big question that’ll loom over all this going forward is how Beijing will react to these developments. Experience suggests that we’ll see an eruption of indignant rhetoric, accusing the United States and other countries of militarizing and destabilizing the South China Sea.

The hard truth that China will have to reckon with is that the unprecedented rate at which we’re seeing increasing trilateralization (U.S.-Japan-India, U.S.-Japan-Australia, U.S.-Japan-Philippines), plurilateralization (U.S.-ASEAN, U.S.-Japan-India-Australia), and multilateralization of security mechanisms in and around the South China Sea has coincided with its own surge of activity in the past years.

This is where chronology matters. The United States has largely been reactive to Chinese moves in the South China Sea. China made its move first: it built its islands; it bullied fishermen; it rammed civilian vessels. Washington’s moves in response have included tactical assertions of the status quo through FONOPS, but the strategic response increasingly appears to be coalition-building in the interest of preserving order and international law in Asia’s waters.