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Reducing Tensions in the South China Sea

Lyle Goldstein doubts the wisdom of U.S. policy vis-a-vis China in the South China Sea:

Washington’s focus on “freedom of navigation,” which has inexplicably become the main pillar of current U.S. policy in the region, is actually rather absurd. China, the world’s largest maritime trading nation by almost any measure, is very unlikely to threaten navigational freedoms — its own economy is almost wholly reliant on those very freedoms. The claim that China’s opposition to regular U.S. military surveillance activities in the South China Sea threatens “freedom of navigation” is likewise disingenuous and represents an unfortunate tendency to reach for the clever sound bite. In fact, such U.S. surveillance activities all along China’s coasts are excessive to the point of seriously disrupting the bilateral relationship and should thus be decreased, especially if linked to concrete progress on Chinese military transparency.

The alleged Chinese threat to ASEAN states, moreover, turns out to be more hype than fact. Much has been said about China’s new nuclear submarine base on Hainan Island, but the surprise is that up to now Beijing has had only one nuclear submarine base (Qingdao) — quite paltry when compared with the four operated by the U.S. Navy in the Pacific area. Similarly, the basing of a ballistic missile submarine and even China’s first aircraft carrier at Hainan would more likely represent weakness than strength. After all, alternative basing in north China simply means these high-value assets would be closer and hence more vulnerable to the impressive striking power of both the Japanese and U.S. fleets that are based primarily in Northeast Asia.

It is not difficult to imagine how U.S. support for the rival claimants against China could encourage conflict. If China’s neighbors believe that the U.S. will come to their aid in the event of an incident, they are more likely to pursue a confrontational policy towards China. Goldstein later cites the example of the U.S. non-response to the Georgian-Russian war as evidence that the U.S. will not actually jeopardize its relationship with a major power for a country of marginal significance, but the more relevant lesson to take from U.S. policy towards Georgia is that it was U.S. support and the Georgian expectation of full backing that created the conditions for the Georgian escalation in the summer of 2008. Georgia paid the price for the confrontational policy previously endorsed by Washington. The same could happen to one of China’s Southeast Asian neighbors, albeit probably on a smaller scale. As in Georgia, U.S. security interests here are minimal. Goldstein states:

The brutal truth, however, is that Southeast Asia matters not a whit in the global balance of power.

For that reason, Goldstein makes a recommendation for U.S. policy:

The main principle guiding U.S. policy regarding the South China Sea has been and should remain nonintervention. Resource disputes are inherently messy and will not likely be decided by grand proclamations or multilateral summitry. Rather, progress will be a combination of backroom diplomacy backed by the occasional show of force by one or more of the claimants. In fact, Beijing’s record of conflict resolution over the last 30 years is rather encouraging: China has not resorted to a major use of force since 1979.

It is this last point that many people tend to overlook. When Aaron Friedberg was warning against the potential for Chinese aggressive action that was built into their political system, he cited two examples of Chinese surprise attack, both of which occurred under Mao’s rule. Friedberg referred to this as proof that the Chinese leadership had a “peculiar penchant for deception and surprise attacks.” It’s possible that the current Chinese leadership might regard these episodes as examples to follow, but this is still very strained. It’s as if one were to discuss how to relate to the Soviet Union in the 1980s as if Stalin were still in power.

What is the source of U.S.-Chinese tensions in this region? As Patrick Cronin has explained, U.S. surveillance activities in this area clash with China’s interpretation of its territorial rights under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea:

Similarly, China and the United States have fundamentally different interpretations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). One major difference is over whether and which type of military activities are permitted within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of a nation. China’s national interests and growing confidence lead to an expansive view of its EEZ and a narrow view of which military activities are permissible for a foreign nation to undertake within an EEZ. Such activities must be peaceful, and Chinese nationalists don’t consider intelligence gathering even by non-warships to be peaceful. The United States, on the other hand, not only contends that such information gathering is entirely within international law, but also that the United States has an obligation to periodically test the premise in order to maintain what it considers the global public good of freedom of the seas.

It is hard to conclude that the “freedom of navigation” argument is much more than a political cover for continuing intelligence-gathering activities in waters that China considers as its own. That still strikes me as a recipe for an international incident, and one that doesn’t seem to serve any discernible American interest. This brings to mind something that Clyde Prestowitz wrote a little while ago:

I am suggesting that we resist the knee jerk temptation to maintain absolute hegemony in the Pacific and engage in an arms race with China.

To avoid this, Goldstein has a suggestion:

Active U.S. cooperation with China in Southeast Asia, for example in the fight against piracy and terrorism — which constitute genuine threats to the vital sea lanes — could serve to build up trust in the security relationship that is sorely lacking at present. Such cooperation would also serve to reassure regional states that do not wish to see their region become the new cockpit of great-power rivalry.

The example of the “reset” with Russia may be a model for this, as improved U.S.-Russian ties have reduced regional tensions and created the opportunity for eastern European states to thaw relations with Russia.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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