The media, analysts, and even the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee have criticized U.S. President Donald J. Trump for “pausing” U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. Indeed, on May 10 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to Trump urging him to restart the FONOPs. But Trump’s pause is the right thing to do — if for the wrong reasons.
The Trump administration’s early statements indicated it would be hard on China. Regarding China’s behavior in the South China Sea, Trump’s rhetoric during the presidential campaign as well as early statements from his relevant Cabinet picks indicated that FONOPs in the South China Sea would become more frequent during his administration.
Trump’s nominees for secretary of state (Rex Tillerson) and defense (James Mattis) both talked tough about challenging China’s actions in the South China Sea at their confirmation hearings. Their statements stimulated a flurry of op-eds and editorials urging a more muscular U.S. policy toward China in the South China Sea.
But President Trump and these Cabinet officials are now singing a different tune when it comes to China. Despite previously questioning the “One China” policy, Trump subsequently told China’s President Xi Jinping that he will honor and observe it. Tillerson “clarified” his earlier remarks, indicating that he is not pushing for a blockade of China-occupied features in the South China Sea. Mattis has also walked back his previous belligerent stance, saying that the U.S. would focus on diplomacy regarding the South China Sea disputes. According to Mattis, “[A]t this time, we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all.”
The Trump administration has turned down three PACOM (U.S. Pacific Command) requests to carry out new FONOPs against China. These requests were made largely because that is what PACOM thought the Trump administration wanted. U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Scott Swift explained rather weakly that “we just present the opportunities… They are either taken advantage of or they’re not.”
It appears that Trump, in his “let’s make a deal” approach to foreign policy, has backed off criticism and actions against China in general and in the South China Sea in particular in return for China’s assistance in stopping North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile development programs. This transactional approach means that his foreign policy is negotiable and not based on principles. But the immediate effect on U.S.-China relations has been positive.
Before this pause, the two were working themselves into a corner that could have led — and still could lead — to confrontation and conflict in the South China Sea. This lull in U.S. criticism and challenges at sea presents an opportunity for a reassessment of, and maybe even a restart in, their policies and relations on this issue.
The United States claims that one of its main concerns is protection of “freedom of navigation.” But Washington purposely conflates freedom of commercial navigation with freedom to undertake military intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) probes against China and others in the region. It then alleges that China’s interference with probes by these military vessels and aircraft in and over China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) violates the freedom of navigation. China argues that it is not challenging freedom of navigation itself but U.S. abuse of this right by its military. Beijing maintains that it has not and will not interfere with maritime trade.
Southeast Asian countries have not explicitly taken a position on this particular aspect of this complex issue, either individually or collectively. This is understandable because the debate over military freedom of navigation does not directly involve them and is essentially a bilateral U.S.-China dispute that can only be resolved by the two parties. Although the United States has asked several of its Asian allies to join FONOPs in the South China Sea, they have demurred. However, the resolution of this peculiar dispute would be warmly welcomed by Southeast Asia in general. What they fear most is that they will be used as pawns in an intensifying great power struggle.
The United States also claims it wants to maintain the rules-based order in the South China Sea. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a key part of that rules-based order. The U.S. says that in addition to China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are in violation of aspects of UNCLOS and it has challenged these violations militarily with FONOPs. Ironically, unlike most of Asia and indeed the world, the United States has not ratified UNCLOS and may even be violating some of its provisions. It is the U.S. itself that is undermining this Convention — and thereby the rules-based order.
To sum up: the United States is on questionable legal and political grounds when it criticizes others’ behavior in the South China Sea; the interests of the U.S. and Southeast Asian countries are diverging on these issues; and China has legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed. The current pause offers a chance for both to maneuver their way out of a deadlock that disadvantages the United States and China alike.
The United States claims that it does not want to control the shots in the region and to constrain China. If that is truly the case, then the dispute over what constitutes freedom of navigation — and militarization — could and should be negotiated, instead of continuing on a path to military confrontation.
China and the United States have already agreed on communication protocols for unplanned encounters at sea. But most encounters between U.S. ISR vessels and aircraft and China’s warships and planes are not unplanned, unintentional, or even unexpected. While the new agreements may make the encounters safer, they will not make them any friendlier or less frequent.
What is needed is an agreement on a set of voluntary guidelines for military and intelligence-gathering activities in foreign EEZs and on definitions of permitted and prohibited conduct there. Such guidelines would provide indicators of friendly and unfriendly behavior and help parties avoid unnecessary incidents without banning any activities outright. But so far, the United States has rejected any and all such guidelines — voluntary or not — as unacceptable. There is now an opportunity for Washington to re-consider its position.
However, any such agreement should be ancillary to a grander bargain on the South China Sea. This bargain would in essence be a political and military stand-off with de-escalation. China would refrain from further occupation, construction, and “militarization” on its claimed features. It would also not undertake any provocative actions like occupying and building on Scarborough Shoal, harassing other claimants in the area, and declaring an air defense identification zone over the Spratlys. China would also agree to a Code of Conduct for activities in the South China Sea — although it may not be as robust or as binding as many would like. The United States, in turn, would decrease or cease altogether its provocative FONOPs against China there and its “close-in” ISR probes.
Such an “agreement to disagree” would not be a panacea. Since nothing would be fully and finally resolved, it would probably result in intensifying sub rosa competition – a “cool war” – between the two for soft-power influence in the region. This would increase pressure on the region’s countries to pick and choose between the United States and China. It could even see stepped-up covert operations by both in vulnerable countries, in which the two powers would support “friendly” domestic factions and foment opposition to its “enemy.” In sum, they would be passing the problem on for future generations to resolve. But that is better than a short-term train wreck — which was beginning to look like the inevitable result of the collision course the U.S. and China are (or hopefully were) on.
This piece first appeared in the IPP Review.
Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.