The US-China Perception Gap in the South China Sea

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The US-China Perception Gap in the South China Sea

The United States and China perceive the South China Sea issue in starkly different terms.

The US-China Perception Gap in the South China Sea

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS John S. McCain (DDG 56), USS Kidd (DDG 100), and USS Stethem (DDG 63) operate in the South China Sea (July 7, 2014).

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Declan Barnes/Released

Over at least the last year, no single issue has dominated the U.S.-China bilateral agenda more than that of the South China Sea (SCS). Though the United States and China have no inherently incompatible official positions on the issue – unlike China, the United States is not a claimant to any territory or water in the South China Sea and takes no position on the merits of the disputed sovereignty issues – the two countries nonetheless have seen bilateral tensions ratchet up markedly as a result of a seemingly inexorable tit-for-tat dynamic. The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA’s) July 12 announcement of its decision on a case brought by the Philippines challenging China’s claims in the South China Sea – a decision in which the PCA sided emphatically with the Philippines, ruling that China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea are without historical basis or legal merit – and China’s principled and categorical rejection the validity of that verdict (and the very process that generated it) have cast into further relief the evident intractability of the South China Sea dispute. While the United States and China have both taken steps in recent weeks seemingly designed to generate at least a modicum of de-escalation, most observers believe that the South China Sea issue will figure prominently on the U.S.-China agenda (as well as on the East Asian and Southeast Asian foreign policy agendas) for years, if not decades, to come; and indeed, some regard the South China Sea as a crucible for possible major international conflict and even world war.

Given that the United States and China have no inherently incompatible claims (as a matter of declared policy) in the South China Sea, a question arises:  on what, precisely, do the two countries disagree? The United States, for its part, has never officially challenged China’s claims, as such, vis-à-vis the five other claimants; from a position of declared neutrality on the merits of the cases, the United States has merely urged China (and the other five claimants) to resolve the existing disputes peacefully and in compliance with international law, so as to maintain peace, stability, and freedom of navigation across a body of water that is a conduit for about $5 trillion in annual international trade, including vital energy flows. China, meanwhile, has repeatedly stated that it has no intention or desire to hamper freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and that it is likewise committed to the peace and stability of the area. More broadly, the United States has made it clear that it welcomes a strong and prosperous China, while China, in turn, has publicly expressed appreciation for the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region and the United States’ unique and vital role in maintaining stability therein.

This evident broad confluence of doctrine and declared positions, however, masks a less harmonious reality: namely, that there exists a substantial and arguably widening gap between the United States and China in the two countries’ strategic perceptions of virtually all facets of the South China Sea issue. These divergent perceptions, as much or more than any specific actions taken or statements issued by the United States and China, seem to account for the issue’s apparent “stuck-ness” in the U.S-China bilateral context. Any meaningful effort to resolve the South China Sea dispute – or perhaps to put it less ambitiously and more realistically, at least to generate a more stable and sustainable stalemate, in lieu of the steadily deteriorating status quo evident in recent months and years – might fruitfully begin with a mapping of divergent U.S. and Chinese strategic perceptions of the various components of the South China Sea issue. This paper, drawing from, among other sources, a number of high-level U.S.-China track 2 convenings organized by the EastWest Institute (EWI) in recent months, seeks to lay out a number of the most notable divergent perceptions.[1]

China’s “Nine-Dash Line”

Perhaps the most fundamental perceptual gap between the United States and China revolves around the actual definition and level of clarity of China’s claims in the South China Sea. From China’s perspective, its claims in the South China Sea – broadly delineated by what China refers to as “the nine-dash line,” which reportedly encompasses about 86 percent of the South China Sea’s entire surface area – are firmly grounded in history and clear-cut to the point of being self-evident and indisputable.

In contrast, the United States (along with many other countries, claimants and non-claimants alike) perceives China’s nine-dash line claim – whatever its historical and legal merits – to be ill-defined and ambiguous. U.S. officials are often unclear, for example, as to what, exactly, the Chinese purport to be claiming: e.g., the entirety of the territory and water within the nine-dash line[2]; all land features within the nine-dash line, plus the maritime swaths that those features command under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (e.g., in certain cases, 12-nautical mile territorial seas and 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones); only the land features but not the adjacent waters; only the UNCLOS-claimable land features, but not certain other land features or waters; or some other configuration of land and/or water. As long as these very basic questions remain unanswered (at least in the mind of one of the two parties, to say nothing of the other claimants), it is hard to imagine the realization of a lasting U.S.-China common understanding on the South China Sea issue writ large.

History vs. Law (UNCLOS)

Another fundamental perceptual rift between the United States and China pertains to the legitimate basis, in principle, of any current sovereignty claim. China takes the view that history is ultimately dispositive and that history trumps contemporary international law in instances in which the two are in conflict. China made that point very clearly when it issued signing statements in 1996 (upon ratifying UNCLOS) and again in 2006, effectively “grandfathering” its own historical territorial and maritime claims where those claims might be viewed by others as being incompatible with the terms of UNCLOS; and, respectively, rejecting key dispute resolution stipulations under UNCLOS.[3]

The United States, though not a ratified party to UNCLOS, nevertheless adheres to its terms as a matter of established U.S. policy dating back to the Reagan presidency; and more fundamentally, the United States generally regards ratified international law (e.g., law to which a country has chosen to be bound – in this case, UNCLOS) as outweighing historical considerations in determining the validity of these types of sovereignty claims. In sum, China sees its claims in the South China Sea as being exempt from full-fledged UNCLOS jurisdiction on the basis of history, while the United States sees the competing claims in the South China Sea as being subject to UNCLOS governance, irrespective of history. This perceptual divide, too, accounts for a substantial amount of the friction between the two countries over this issue.

Intentions, Objectives, and Motivations

There is a deep perceptual divide regarding each country’s strategic intentions, objectives, and motivations. China sees U.S. statements and actions (and in particular, U.S. freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPS, which the Chinese regard as sharply escalatory) as bespeaking a desire on the part of the United States to surround China, to “contain” China, to limit China’s ability to project power in the waters off its southern coast, to bolster U.S. “hegemony” or primacy in the East Asia maritime space, and to tilt to U.S. allies and partners in the region, such as the Philippines. Though China does not consistently articulate these sentiments and perceptions at the official level, they are not far under the surface and they color Chinese strategic thinking. In sum, China sees U.S. behavior in the South China Sea as being aggressive and designed to thwart China’s ambitions – in essence, the operationalization of the principles of the U.S. “pivot” or rebalancing to Asia, which China views in similarly adversarial terms. China, meanwhile, characterizes its own actions in the South China Sea as entirely benign; for example, Chinese officials explain China’s efforts in the South China Sea as being motivated only by a desire to enhance its humanitarian assistance capacity in the Sea, to advance its scientific and meteorological research, and so on.

Here again, the United States sees the situation entirely differently. The U.S. perceives China’s actions not as benign, but as assertive, even aggressive. In the U.S. view, China, through these assertive actions (e.g., a bold and aggressive land reclamation effort, the militarization earlier this year of at least one of the Spratly Islands China controls, and so on) in the South China Sea, is trying to achieve a number of objectives: to project its growing military power into waters vital to international trade; to bolster and strengthen its claims and ultimate access to the South China Sea’s abundant resources (e.g., fisheries, energy and minerals); to create “strategic depth” in the waters off its southern coast; to intimidate smaller neighbors, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as, to a lesser degree, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan; and to check or at least complicate U.S. efforts to operate militarily in the close-in waters off the coast of southeastern China; among other goals. At the same time, the United States views its own motivations as benign and focused exclusively on twin legitimate policy objectives: to ensure that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is maintained and to ensure that the SCS disputes are addressed peacefully. The United States forcefully denies that its actions are motivated by any desire to contain China or thwart its ambitions; it also rejects the idea that the United States is doing anything qualitatively new in the South China Sea (e.g., the United States has always undertaken FONOPS in this body of water).

Who is the Instigator in the South China Sea?

There is a major perceptual disconnect between the United States and China over the question of just who is provoking whom – that is, who is playing the instigating role? Here, the two countries look at (largely) the same set of facts, but see them in utterly different ways. China believes that it is the United States, not China, that has upset the precarious balance (basically, the mostly “stable stalemate” that has obtained for some decades, up until recent years) with new, irresponsible, provocative and destabilizing pronouncements and actions. As examples, the Chinese often point to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2010 statement that “the United States, like every nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea” (emphasis added); and, more recently, U.S. freedom of navigation operations which have brought U.S. naval vessels into waters claimed by China as territorial (e.g., within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed sovereign territory). Chinese interlocutors thus lay responsibility for recent SCS-related bilateral tensions virtually entirely at the feet of the United States (as well as other players, such as the Philippines and Vietnam; more on this below). In contrast, China views its own actions as benign and largely consistent with recent past practice.

The United States has a diametrically opposed view. U.S. officials have stated that U.S. pronouncements and actions have been in direct response to, and indeed proportionate to, Chinese policy departures and provocations and that the United States, not China, has been in reactive mode. They point to actions such as (but not limited to) China’s placement in 2014 of an oil rig (accompanied by a sizable armada of ships, including military vessels) in disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam and, of course, China’s massive land reclamation efforts on, and even recent apparent militarization of, land features within the Spratly Island archipelago; they also point to what they regard as dangerous Chinese maneuvers in the air and on the sea that have created some very close calls and near collisions. In short, each side firmly believes that the other side has been the instigator of recent tensions; both the United States and China believe they have been reacting to the provocations of the other side.

The Role of the Philippines and Vietnam

China and the United States have similarly sharply divergent perspectives on the roles of the Philippines and Vietnam in recent South China Sea developments. China views both countries as instigators and “trouble-makers” in the South China Sea. It portrays both countries as the real aggressors – the countries that have been most active in altering and upsetting the status quo to their advantage, all while China has demonstrated great restraint in the face of their provocations. China characterizes the Philippines and Vietnam as irresponsible, reckless, and manipulative; and it characterizes its own recent actions (such as its land reclamation efforts) as a late effort to “catch up” with similar efforts made years ago by these two countries.

With respect to the relationships of these two countries with the United States, Chinese interlocutors frequently invoke the “tail wagging the dog” metaphor, meaning that smaller and weaker players are managing to influence the choices and behavior of the much larger and more powerful United States (an ally of the Philippines and increasingly important partner – and indeed military partner – of Vietnam). By the same token, China sees the United States as being manipulated by these countries and critiques the United States for over-emphasizing its relationships with these two relatively inconsequential countries (in China’s view) at the expense of the U.S. relationship with the much more important regional and world player, China. At times, Chinese speculate that the United States is either wittingly or unwittingly egging on the Philippines and Vietnam, giving these two nations greater confidence to undertake irresponsible and provocative actions in the South China Sea, thereby fueling tensions.

The U.S. perspective on the Philippines and Vietnam is quite different. The United States views its ally (the Philippines) and emerging partner (Vietnam) less as provocateurs and more as SCS claimants that have been bullied by a much larger and more powerful neighbor and fellow claimant (China). The United States recognizes that both countries have reclaimed land in the South China Sea and even militarized islands, but it sees the scope of the Chinese efforts in these regards as far eclipsing, by orders of magnitude, that of the earlier Filipino and Vietnamese efforts. The United States sees China, and not the Philippines or Vietnam, as the principal destabilizing force in the South China Sea in recent years. Moreover, the United States regards itself as having been a force for restraint in the region, not an enabler, as the Chinese sometimes posit, of irresponsible and reckless actions on the part of the Philippines and Vietnam. Finally, the United States perceives that it is possible to have robust relationships with these two countries at the same time as the United States engages China in a substantial and productive way; it rejects the “zero-sum”/“either-or” framing implicit in China’s assessment of the geopolitics of the South China Sea.

The July 12 Ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration

There is a yawning rift between the United States’ and China’s perceptions of and positions on the recent (July 12) ruling of the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration. As noted above, the ruling thoroughly repudiated China’s long-held legal claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea and awarded the Philippines, which brought the case in 2013 after the Chinese navy seized control of the Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines, an important, if effectively only symbolic, victory. China’s key views and perceptions of the PCA case are that the Philippines were not within their rights to bring the case in the first place; the PCA had no proper jurisdiction over the issues at hand; and the PCA’s July 12 decision is “null and void and [of] no binding force” owing to what China regarded as the illegitimacy of the process (as distinct from merely the content of the verdict[4]).

The United States perceived the case very differently in all of these regards. Though itself pointedly neutral on the merits of the various SCS sovereignty claims, as noted above, the United States regarded the Philippines as being within its rights to bring the case and regarded the PCA as having due jurisdiction over the matters raised in the case. Moreover, the United States perceived the PCA award as valid and legitimate, stating on July 12 (through a press briefing at the U.S. Department of State), “it is a legally binding tribunal decision, and our expectation was before it was made and is now after it’s made that all claimants are going to abide by it.” (It should be noted, however, that the United States, for its part, does not have a pristine record of complying with similar decisions.)


Clearly, the United States and China perceive the South China Sea issue in starkly different terms. The two countries are looking at largely the same set of facts – and, at times, seemingly different sets of facts, as well – through very different perceptual lenses.  Where Beijing sees restraint and magnanimity on its part, Washington sees aggression and bullying; where Washington sees consistent adherence to established policy on its part, Beijing sees a major and destabilizing departure from the earlier U.S. posture; and so on. This perception gap is exacerbating, and in some cases causing, tensions between two countries whose more fundamental national security interests, at least as officially declared, are not actually in inherent or direct conflict in the South China Sea.

Recent confidence-building measures undertaken by both the United States and China are certainly welcome and represent positive steps in the right direction. But a more enduring resolution of the South China Sea disputes – and more specifically, a more lasting mitigation of the SCS issue’s deleterious impact on the overall U.S.-China relationship – needs to be predicated on each side recognizing that a big part of the problem are the divergent strategic perceptions on both sides, not just certain actual actions. After all, the same action can appear very differently depending on the perceptual lens applied.

The United States-China relationship is too consequential to be unduly bogged down in any one issue – especially when that issue is one on which the two nations’ declared interests are generally in accord. With the PCA decision behind us and some modest efforts now being made by the United States and China to de-escalate tensions, now is the time for the two countries to explore more deeply and critically their mutual strategic perceptions – and recommit to finding a positive way forward on a vitally important issue that need not be in the future the U.S.-China trust-drainer that it has been in the recent past.

David J. Firestein, a former career U.S. diplomat, is the Perot Fellow and Senior Vice President for Strategic Trust-Building and Track 2 Diplomacy at the EastWest Institute.

[1] In the course of our convenings and consultations, we met with active-duty and retired military officers at the level of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and Chinese Central Military Commission, as well as a wide variety of former combatant commanders; we also met with foreign policy and other government officials, key legislators, think tank analysts and academics, public opinion pollsters, members of the media and other stakeholders.

[2] If, in fact, China is making this most expansive of the possible claims, then it would not be accurate to say that U.S. and Chinese interests in the South China Sea are not inherently incompatible; but China has never made this claim officially and it does not appear to be China’s official stance.

[3] It should be noted, however, that China is not unique in issuing this kind of signing statement.

[4] In fairness to China, it stated from the outset its principled objection to the Filipino legal action – long before there was a verdict in either direction. In other words, China’s objection – whatever its merits – is process-oriented, not content-oriented (though, with that being said, China certainly disagrees with the substance of the verdict, as well).