The Debate | Security | East Asia

The US ‘New Cold War’ Battle Cry in the South China Sea

Stepped-up U.S. aggression against China has been especially notable in the South China Sea.

By Chen Xiangmiao for
The US ‘New Cold War’ Battle Cry in the South China Sea
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Logan C. Kellums

A military and diplomatic one-two punch has formed the nucleus of U.S. actions against China recently. First, the United States conducted three dual aircraft carrier exercises in the South China Sea within one month, then it sent an E-8C reconnaissance plane flying near the Guangdong coast twice in three days, all capped off by an announcement from the U.S. Department of State changing the United States’ South China Sea policy after a quarter of a century.

The intensity and severity of these moves was surprising, and the negative impacts on maritime and regional security brought by these actions are particularly worrying. America’s “new cold war” against China is in full swing in the South China Sea.

First, the United States redefined its bilateral relations with China in the South China Sea. From the U.S. perspective, the South China Sea issue is considered within the framework of comprehensive strategic competition with China. Thus being at odds with China will be the keynote of present and future U.S. policy in the South China Sea.

In a policy statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 13, China was described as a great power believing “might makes right” in the pursuit of “maritime empire.” His tone implied that the United States will stand with the international community in defense of freedom and democracy to reject China’s ambition as a “maritime empire,” as Washington once did in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. In this context, descriptions of China bullying Southeast Asian countries are used as more evidence of “authoritarianism,” “revisionism,” and great power “strategic rivalry.” Apparently the United States has decided to combine the South China Sea issue with separate lines of attack over Hong Kong, the coronavirus, the trade war, and human rights problem. From recent U.S. military actions and tough statements, it is obvious that dialogue and cooperation on the South China Sea issue has been abandoned as a policy choice by the Trump administration. Based on the Trump government’s logic, there is no space for the two countries to cooperate in the South China Sea. Instead, making all-out efforts to contain China is going to be the driving force behind the U.S. South China Sea policy.

Second, the goal of U.S. military action in the South China Sea has seemingly upgraded from displaying strength and presence, conducting intelligence reconnaissance, and signaling strategic deterrence, to more dangerous “war preparations.” This is yet another sign that direct confrontation has come. Dual aircraft carrier exercises and frequent intelligence reconnaissance missions conducted by EP-3 amd E8-C   reconnaissance aircraft, submarines, and B-52 bombers have clearly gone beyond normal intelligence collection and deterrence. The United States is already rehearsing for an armed conflict against China. A well-organized U.S. military force system — formed by aircraft carrier formations, submarines, unmanned drones, and bombers – is interlaced with China’s defense system in the south. Close encounters between the two have become normal.

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Third, the United States is sparing no efforts to build a united group that regards China as the imaginary enemy, and thus a bipolar antagonistic alignment similar to the Cold War is taking form. Building camps amid great power competition was one of the important features in the Cold War period, and now is also emerging in U.S.-China relations. In Pompeo’s statement, the United States deliberately emphasized its support for Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Indonesia in their maritime claims in the South China Sea, presumably with the aim of stirring up unresolved conflicts between China and other claimants over resource exploitation. What the United States wants is nothing other than the isolation of China and the formation of a joint bloc with ASEAN countries to contain China. The United States has already started to draw outside countries like Japan, Australia, India, and the United Kingdom to its own side to jointly respond to China on the South China Sea issue.

Fourth, in the face of being excluded from Code of Conduct (COC) consultations underway between China and ASEAN, the United States is eager and very likely to initiate new maritime rules. Rule-based power is the “lifeline” for the United States to maintain its dominant situation, and also the most critical point to control the order in the South China Sea region. Dominance of the rule system symbolizes the ultimate control of regional order and will play a decisive role in U.S.-China relations.

The United States is concerned that if COC negotiations proceed on schedule, China will gain rule-based power. Washington has anticipated that cooperation with Vietnam won’t be enough to block the COC negotiation process. Therefore, a U.S. Council on Foreign Relations report released in May suggested that the United States could establish and enforce, with like-minded nations, its own code of conduct in the South China Sea, in order to jointly resist threats from China. In fact, discussion on leading the establishment of a regional order is under way among policymaking departments and think tanks. The U.S.-China struggle for regional rules dominance sets the stage for confrontation.

In my view, the United States has ascertained that it can’t block China’s behavior through deterrence; thus Washington decided to adjust its strategy toward China in 2017. At present, the space for the U.S. “push-back” strategy vis-a-vis China’s “established position” is almost exhausted. The frequent military operations recently in the South China Sea and high-profile policy announcements from the United States indicate it has pressed the switch marked “new cold war,” taking the South China Sea issue into a new phase.

In reality, China and the United States both know that neither side has the capacity to stop the deployment and operations of the other party, and neither side will be the first to make concessions (at least publicly). But it is also true that policymakers of both countries are aware of the incalculable costs of conflict and confrontation. For China and Southeast Asian countries, insisting on bilateral dialogue, COC consultations, maritime cooperation, and crisis management may be the most appropriate policy alternative at a time when the United States is trying to provoke a new cold war.

Chen Xiangmiao is an associate research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.