The Debate

Downplaying Sino-US Tensions in the South China Sea

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The Debate

Downplaying Sino-US Tensions in the South China Sea

How to help ease tensions in what is often called the world’s most important bilateral relationship.

Downplaying Sino-US Tensions in the South China Sea
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The administration of Barack Obama has taken an assertive stance to defend the rule of law and stability in the South China Sea. In the wake of the controversial ruling by the international tribunal in The Hague, China has categorically refused to acknowledged the court’s decision, throwing into question what, if anything, the United States and its allies and partners in the Pacific can do to ensure China adheres to international norms upholding the freedom of navigation and peace in the South China Sea.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (currently the Democratic nominee for president) was the first U.S. official to declare freedom of navigation and respect for international law in the South China Sea a national interest to the United States, on a trip to Vietnam in 2010 for the ASEAN Regional Forum. President Obama himself has declared that “the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.”

While these statements have drawn a lot of attention, there remain doubts as to the extent of U.S. capabilities and willingness to protect its interests in the South China Sea. Here are a handful of issue areas and policy options for United States decision-makers to consider.

Unilateral Actions Vs. Diplomatic Options

Washington is rather constrained in regard to unilateral policy options. The only unilateral action the U.S. has undertaken, arguably, is regular freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), in which it has sailed aircraft carriers and destroyers with high visibility through contested waters in the South China Sea. This isn’t likely to solve anything directly, and in fact greatly aggravates China by the “loud” nature of the demonstrations, which Beijing interprets as a thinly veiled threat.

There’s a great deal more room for progress on diplomacy. The U.S. and China have regular high-level dialogues such as the annual Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED). This allows Washington and Beijing’s diplomats, defense, and trade officials to speak directly and candidly on a variety of topics.

Certainly Obama and his cabinet members have already spoken privately and directly to President Xi Jinping and his top leaders. Fora like the upcoming G20 China is hosting next month also present opportunities for direct side talks. It is safe to assume that there is some forceful, behind-closed-doors diplomacy going on as well to tamp down tensions. Public positions and private positions are likely quite different in this regard.

Misplaced Sticks and Carrots Left to Play

The FONOPS have been vocal, prominent, and highly counterproductive in demonstrating to China our views on Beijing’s South China Sea sovereignty claims. If we did them quietly rather than with announcements and bravado, this would leave China more room and flexibility to respond. It would likely allow China’s leadership to “save face,” without shaming them and pushing them into a corner. Beijing faces a great degree of nationalism and public pressure to show defiance and stand up for its claims, in light of what it perceives as historical Western aggressors. Washington’s flaunting aircraft carriers in their backyard doesn’t help and only adds fuel to the fire.

Cooperative efforts in other fields show more promise. The U.S. government should pursue with renewed vigor the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT), which is currently stalled. The United States and China have shown a remarkable ability to cooperate on transnational issues like trade and climate change, areas of potential progress that would benefit not just the two superpowers, but the world. These deals allow China to signal to the world it is a responsible great power. The United States should seek to reinforce that.

Despite the high-stakes tensions on security issues, cooperation on areas like trade and investment, climate change, and educational exchange remains likely. China is an eminently practical player, and Chinese leaders have historically been able to separate sensitive issues of national interest from more pragmatic cooperation in other areas with calm and level heads.

Beijing is far more likely to make rash and hurtful decisions (such as banning exports of rare earth metals to Japan for computer and cell phone chip manufacturing, in response to the East China Sea dispute, for example) toward less powerful neighbors like Japan and Korea than it is toward the United States. Beijing still prioritizes the relationship with the U.S., which remains the most important one on a variety of global issues.

Ecological Destruction

Though often overlooked and seemingly unrelated (precisely its strength!), cooperation on ecological and fishery protection may be one of the best avenues to pursue (alongside mineral, oil, natural gas exploration – responsibly) for regional cooperation and peace in the South China Sea. There are lots of unexplored (or shelved) opportunities for joint resource exploration and management, joint patrols (countering piracy, for instance), and other shared responsibilities.

The Scourge of Nationalism

American diplomacy greatly impacts Chinese nationalism, and often this backfires on the Communist Party of China. Rather than helping the situation, this often forces the CPC’s hand and brings about results counter to U.S. interests. Even though China is not a democracy, leaders in Beijing are greatly constrained by public opinion. The Chinese public, for instance, has relied on claims that the U.S. is trying to “contain” China’s rise and even pointed to the UNCLOS tribunal’s Japanese judge as a sign of a U.S. conspiracy on the South China Sea case. Moreover, every time somebody like U.S. Pacific Commander Harry Harris clamors about China’s “Great Wall of sand” or criticizes China’s militaristic intentions, the Chinese public take note and are left to believe the U.S. wants war. Best to quietly convey such concerns to China’s leadership in private. This would have the result of a more direct avenue for communication and simultaneously dampen Chinese populist nationalism, which gets in the way of effective diplomacy.

Ideally, senior-most level diplomacy – by this I mean heads of state Obama and Xi sitting down, meeting, and talking as they did in Sunnylands in 2013 – is the best path for resolving and downplaying tensions. Moving away from the South China Sea – as I recently argued in The National Interest – is also crucial for cooperation on a variety of other areas in Asia: trade, climate change, and infrastructure development, just to name a few.

Finally, people-to-people ties (i.e., Chinese students studying in America and learning U.S. perspectives, American students learning more from Chinese host families and peers about their viewpoints, culture, and history, and tourism) will all go a long way toward easing animosities and bringing about friendship and understanding in the longer term.

Hunter Marston is a Washington, D.C.-based Southeast Asia analyst and writes frequently in The Diplomat, The National Interest, and elsewhere.