Two things stand out from China’s recent conduct in the South China Sea. One, China’s leaders are men in a hurry. They mean to settle the disputes over the islets, shoals, and reefs dotting that troubled waterway, and they mean to do so soon. To all appearances, they have resolved to settle the territorial disputes through unilateral fiat. They are positioning superior might near contested geographic features and daring weaker coastal states or their allies — read America — to do anything about it.
If patience is a virtue, it’s one that’s conspicuously absent in Beijing of late.
And two, the leadership may get its way despite jettisoning its promising venture in “small-stick diplomacy.” That’s my term for the practice of deploying unarmed law-enforcement vessels, not men-of-war, to police contested waters as though by right. But if reports circulating in the Philippine press are accurate, Beijing has added naval muscle to its policy mix. For instance, it has stationed a frigate at Scarborough Shoal to help shoo away Philippine mariners. Encasing the disputed atoll in a “cabbage” of hulls represents a break with the methodical, relatively low-key strategy of recent years.
To its small stick, China’s leadership has added the big stick manifest in People’s Liberation Army Navy warships. The result: a composite variety of sea power uniting military and nonmilitary shipping to preside over Chinese-claimed waters. And it’s not just government shipping. China has long regarded nongovernmental vessels, notably the fishing fleet, as an unofficial naval auxiliary. There’s a national fleet for you.
And who’s to gainsay this approach? Despite Beijing’s effrontery (and the diplomatic and military blowback imperiousness typically begets), a new norm may be settling across maritime Southeast Asia. And a new norm is precisely the goal. In this brave new world, Chinese seafarers will ply waters that have supposedly belonged to China for centuries. It will be workaday routine, furthermore, for Beijing to make — and enforce — the rules whereby shipping and aircraft pass through Southeast Asian seas and skies, and stipulating what they may do during transit. The South China Sea will be a commons no more; it will be a Chinese preserve.
Should this big/small-stick diplomacy take effect, each encounter — each Scarborough Shoal, or Second Thomas Reef, or what have you — will occasion less and less buzz in press or diplomatic circles. Such controversies will recede into background noise. Think about it. Last year Scarborough Shoal dominated headlines for weeks on end. How much have you read in press reporting about the escalation represented by Beijing’s cabbage strategy? Precious little, unless you’re among the doughty few who frequent the Philippine Star or similar outlets.
Increasingly, then, crickets chirp, as China poaches not just islets and rocks but huge swathes of its neighbors’ exclusive economic zones. Such affronts are less and less newsworthy — and that’s just how Beijing wants it. Absent any popular or political impetus, there’s little to bestir rival seafaring powers to take forceful countermeasures.
Theorist Carl von Clausewitz explains how this phenomenon works. Clausewitz implores decision makers to let the “value of the object” govern the “magnitude” and “duration” of any politico-military enterprise. In other words, how much a society prizes its political objectives determines how many lives, how much treasure, and how many resources it puts into obtaining those objectives — and for how long.
Southeast Asian powers like Vietnam or the Philippines cherish their maritime claims as much as China does. The political stakes are sky-high for Hanoi and Manila, warranting massive effort. But however unflinching its resolve, no Southeast Asian state possesses the military means — relative to a far stronger China — to stage a seaborne competition of meaningful magnitude or duration. The pride of the Philippine Navy is an elderly U.S. Coast Guard cutter, for heaven’s sake.
The United States, on the other hand, boasts abundant maritime means, but its political stakes appear paltry. How many times in recent years has some Western pundit or official deemed Scarborough Shoal or the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands mere flyspecks on the map, of trivial value to Washington? By Clausewitzian cost/benefit logic, U.S. decision makers should expend modest — at most — effort to uphold interests of negligible worth. In short, Beijing has invited Washington either to accept the new norm in Southeast Asia or invest lavishly in an open-ended endeavor, in a faraway theater, to defend a principle of little obvious consequence.
Beijing is acutely conscious of, and goes out of its way, to harness Clausewitzian logic. Chinese spokesmen point out that Beijing has no desire to circumscribe freedom of navigation — Washington’s stated interest in regional waters — narrowly construed. Outwardly, that is, little will change for merchantmen crisscrossing the South China Sea, notwithstanding China’s claims of “indisputable sovereignty” over nearly the entire expanse. No one wants to impede trade and commerce. Only warships and warplanes will find certain activities affirmed by the law of the sea — carrier flight operations and military surveillance, to name two — proscribed.
Does the United States value such prerogatives enough to undertake a prolonged, expensive effort to protect them? That’s the question Chinese leaders are posing sotto voce. U.S. decision makers must ponder it carefully. Staking U.S. policy narrowly on freedom of navigation — while remaining noncommittal on allies’ rights under the law of the sea — could amount to letting China unilaterally amend the Asian maritime system over which America has presided since 1945. That’s a dangerous precedent. Preserving freedom of the seas in its broadest sense is a political object worth incurring serious costs. Explaining that to a wary electorate, nevertheless, will tax the gifts of the most fluent statesman.
In short, shaping cost/benefit calculations is a head game whose odds favor China, the resident power in Asia. Why such haste on Beijing’s part, though? Big/small-stick diplomacy promises the immediate gains delineated here. But it does risk rallying an opposing coalition, perhaps behind the American banner. Forestalling such problems was precisely the virtue of the leisurely, small-stick approach. It delivered results over time while muting impressions of Chinese bullying.
One candidate explanation: Beijing may have reexamined the trendlines, reconsidering its prophecies about inevitable Chinese ascendancy and inexorable American decline. If America is “roaring back,” China may feel impelled to act now, locking in its gains lest it lose them forever. Another possibility: China may be using its actions in Southeast Asia to telegraph steadfastness in the East China Sea, putting rival Japan on notice that it cannot hold the Senkakus. Possibilities abound.
A final Clausewitzian point: Given the political stakes, let’s not kid ourselves about the prospects that Beijing will give ground at talks with ASEAN states. This is an effort demanding whatever it takes, for as long as it takes. More likely, the leadership will view talks as a forum for negotiating how seagoing states will conform to China’s new norm.
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, just released in paperback.