The Debate

The South China Sea: Reality Is Slowly Sinking In

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The Debate

The South China Sea: Reality Is Slowly Sinking In

It’s finally clear that the United States is not willing to confront China in the disputed waters.

The South China Sea: Reality Is Slowly Sinking In
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amy M. Ressler

China continues to militarize the South China Sea features it occupies and to assert its questionable maritime claims versus other claimants. U.S. rhetoric has sharply criticized China’s behavior and implied dire consequences if it persists. But China has persisted and it has become clear that America is not going to rescue the other claimants from perceived intimidation and coercion. The realization that the United States will not be coming to the rescue is belatedly beginning to sink in throughout the region and misplaced hope is being replaced by bitter disappointment and even despair. However to seasoned observers, this development was not a surprise.

Vietnam and the international supporters of its position are the latest to come to this realization. The reaction has occasionally been hyperbolic. Ankit Panda wrote a piece for the South China Morning Post lamenting that China had successfully “coerced” Vietnam to withdraw its consent for Spanish energy company Repsol to proceed with drilling in its concession. The area is also claimed by China by its nine-dash line, which was declared illegal by an international tribunal in 2016. Panda then argues that the United States let China get “away with it” and that this fact “undermines the ultimate shallow reassurances that the United States has been able to provide to regional states. “ According to Panda, “The next time Chinese decision makers seek to authorize the coercion of a Southeast Asian claimant state in the South China Sea, they’ll remember that.”

Last year in the run-up to the ASEAN summitry and discussions there on the South China Sea, Australian analyst Carl Thayer expressed similar angst. He lamented that the U.S. failure to check China’s bullying may indicate that Washington has ceded leadership in the Asia-Pacific region to China. These statements may be hyperbole but they are an accurate indication of the disappointment and even despair being felt and expressed by pundits and policymakers alike.

Indications that the United States was unlikely to militarily support even an ally like the Philippines regarding the South China Sea disputes surfaced when China muscled its way to control of the Philippines-claimed Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines had hoped that the United States would intervene on its behalf, but it was not to be. This led to current President Rodrigo Duterte’s blunt pragmatic assessment that “America would never die for us” — a reference to U.S. vagueness on whether or not it would come to the aid of the Philippine military in a conflict in the Spratlys or Scarborough Shoal. Duerte has also stated that “China is now in power and they have military superiority in the region.”

When the United States subsequently conducted a freedom of navigation near the disputed Scarborough Shoal it got no support from the Philippines. To the contrary, Philippine presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said, “For us, that [China’s protest against the U.S. warship’s passage] is really a problem of America because we have come to a point that we now have an independent foreign policy.  The problem of America today is no longer the problem of the Philippines” — and apparently vice versa.

In Washington, there Duterte’s volte-face was seen as a tipping point toward the demise of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, concluded that Duterte’s renovated foreign policy “is a potential disaster” [because] “China could either neutralize this vital American ally, or even potentially turn the Philippines into a PLA Navy base.”

Even the New York Times editorialized that “Such an alarming about face would be a serious blow to regional stability and to [then] President Obama’s policy of strengthening relations with Asian countries as a counterpoint to a newly aggressive China.”

As a result of these probably predictable developments, the South China Sea situation appears to have at least temporarily settled into a “new normal” that neither China nor the United States are likely to disturb. In this new normal, both will continue their naval and air force displays of power in the South China Sea; defend their policies, positions, and actions; criticize each others’; and enhance relations with regional countries, including military relations. The United States will continue its sporadic and provocative freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) against China’s claims and China will continue to respond by sharply criticizing them and using them as an excuse to further militarize its features.

But the United States will not try to remove Chinese forces on the disputed features nor will it “blockade” them, as briefly suggested by Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearings for the secretary of state position. Washington will also not directly intervene militarily to defend other claimants against China’s assertiveness. As for China, it will not occupy new features and hopefully will not threaten or use force against other claimants or their commercial proxies. But if either side crosses a “red line,” all bets are off.

Hopes of U.S. military intervention in the South China Sea were put to rest after the July 2016 international arbitration panel’s decision against China’s historic maritime claims and the now clearly empty rhetoric from idealist international lawyers and U.S. officials that international law and order must be upheld. China, on the other hand, steadfastly ignore the decision and the ruling is now largely forgotten.

The United States has since been trying to recover lost political ground and trust with major naval exercises in the region and aggressive rhetoric. Last week, on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in Manila Bay, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim proclaimed the presence of the carrier “sends a very clear message to everyone in the region, especially to our friends in the Philippines. Because our commitment to the US-Philippines alliance is unbreakable and will remain so indefinitely.”

However few policymakers and pundits believe these reassurances. Actions speak louder than words and to them the United States has been missing in action.

Instead they are more likely to believe analysts like Australia’s Hugh White, who argues that Washington has shown “no appetite for engaging in a confrontation with China” in China’s own backyard where the U.S. might take heavy losses and not win quickly. It seems to have concluded that support for its ‘friends and allies’ or for nebulous concepts like the international order or the freedom of navigation are not sufficient reasons to do so.”

In other words, realpolitik has triumphed over moralpolitik.

Mark J. Valencia is Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China