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Foreign Policy

Strategic Perceptions and Misperceptions in the South China Sea

Sep 20, 2016

In recent years, the South China Sea (SCS) has become a defining feature of East Asia’s security complex and regional order. In the pioneering book Perception and Misperception in International Politics (1976), Robert Jervis exhaustively explored the causes and consequences of misperception, the kinds of perceptual errors (psychological forces) in decision-making, and the importance of image (belief) formation in relation to intentions or inferences arising from information assimilation. Jervis’ framework of analysis could apply no better than in the case of the SCS, where perceptions and misperceptions, particularly between the Philippines and China, and China and the United States, have led to periodic strategic and diplomatic conflicts. 

The highly anticipated verdict handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague last July was seen by the Philippines as a “moral victory,” and by China as a “bitter pill of humiliation.” Although maritime rights, entitlements, and obligations may have been clarified, enforcement and China’s compliance to the ruling remains an open question, as China has consistently maintained its “4 Nos” (四个不) policy of non-participation (不参与), non-recognition (不承认), non-acceptance (不接受), and non-implementation (不执行). In fact, a few days after the PCA announcement, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) conducted aerial patrols over the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal. A few weeks thereafter, the Chinese Defense Ministry announced that it would hold a joint naval exercise with Russia in the SCS this month and also urged preparations for a “People’s War at Sea” (海上人民战争). 

The United States, on the other hand, has repeatedly stated that it will carry on with its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) wherever international law allows and that China should abide by the ruling of the PCA. Major powers such as Japan and Australia have also urged China to comply with the ruling. Noticeably, the involvement of non-claimant actors on the SCS issue through the exercise of military power, alliances, security partnerships, and official diplomatic statements all indicate that a post-arbitration setting goes beyond the province of legalism and is only one byproduct of the broader competitive dynamics, which encompass geopolitics, geostrategy, and machtpolitik (power politics). 

The Two-Level Disputes 

There are two levels of dispute in the SCS. The first is the competing territorial claims and maritime entitlement between China and the ASEAN claimant states. The second is the major power conflict between the United States and China over interventionist roles and contending interpretations of FONOPS and international law. In both situations, “strategic moralism” or what Helen Thompson calls the “clash of self-righteous judgments” is well at play: facts are being countered by counter-facts and historic rights are being confuted with legal rights, which is why the international community is being exposed to competing narratives. At the same time, there are conflicting remedial actions and ways of dispute settlement that cause diverging policy directions and dichotomous mindsets. For instance, what is stabilizing, legitimate, troubleshooting and constructive for one, is destabilizing, illegitimate, troublemaking, and destructive to the other. 

Perceptions Dilemma 

The mere fact that there is no clear understanding of each other’s actions and intentions in the SCS gives rise to a perceptions gap or misperceptions. Misperceptions may be defined as the inaccurate, negative, flawed or misconstrued images of the other caused – or amplified – by insufficient, misleading, and excessive or sensationalized information. Policy actions and options are highly dependent upon perceptions and misperceptions. Logically, therefore, misperceptions or conflicting self-perceptions are what leads to misguided policy actions, overreactions, miscalculations, and unintended consequences. 

The clash of perceptions could not be better illustrated by China’s view of its own activities and Philippine-American strategic cooperation vis-à-vis Philippine and American shared interpretation of their security alignment and China’s increased maritime and military activities in the SCS. For China, there are no commission of acts of expansionism because it has had indisputable sovereignty over the SCS since ancient times and considers its reclamation activities for civilian and defensive purposes. 

China views Manila negatively in several ways. Firstly, as a lackey of the United States that consistently sings the U.S. tune (一唱一和). China also views the Philippines’ security alignment with the United States and Japan as an effort to contain China and cause disturbance, trouble, and provocations. China believes the Philippines’ goal of “internationalizing” the SCS issue by going to The Hague and rallying the ASEAN for a joint statement is to “name and shame” (点名批评) China. The Philippines, on the other hand, believes that its claims, rights, and interests are guaranteed under international law and that the security alignment with the United States and Japan is meant to deter Chinese aggression. The Philippines is also of the opinion that its recourse to third party arbitration is for the peaceful settlement of disputes, advancement of the rule of law, and the equalization of its footing with China. Further, the Philippines perceives China in various hostile forms: as a bully and a greedy state and as the cause of the demand for a U.S. military presence in Asia. It also sees China’s expanding military power as a threat that cannot be disengaged from the SCS issue, and believes that the newly reclaimed islands will be used for military purposes. 

Escalation of Tensions and Instability 

Sources of disagreement arising from competing claims of ownership and entitlement are different from the sources of tensions and instability. The sources of instability, on the backdrop of perceptions and misperceptions, are caused or preceded by actions, reactions, counteractions, tensions, and escalation of tensions. There are four primary factors that contribute to instability and increased tensions: (1) ownership; (2) nationalism; (3) security dilemma; and (4) strategic mistrust. First, no country wants to lose a property based on the assumption or fact that it is the rightful owner. Thus, the default perception is that anything that the other party does (without consent) is unjust, unlawful, threatening, and an infringement of one’s areal jurisdiction (national sovereignty) and territorial dominion (territorial integrity), which produces a “we-they” or “us vs. them” mindset. As a consequence, the more one party defends its claims with greater force, the more it appears antagonistic to the other. 

Second, national ownership cannot be divorced from nationalism. Nationalism is sacred to any nation as it signifies love of country, gallantry, and valor. Compounding ownership with nationalism causes what anthropologist Robert Ardrey called “territorial imperative,” that is, the principle that people and nations “will defend to the death their territory just like animals instinctively do.” As one analyst also rightfully put it, “Citizens of any country tend to react when they believe they have common cause, their beliefs are correct, and others’ beliefs are wrong.” This is not remote from what Robert Jervis described as “cognitive” or “perceptual biases.” For Jervis, people tend to hold on to perceptions of constant conditions, which makes change harder to accept. This also implies believing in one’s own (or an ally’s) national narrative over those of a competitor’s. Thus, misperceptions accompanied by nationalism raise nationalist fervor, which leads people to demand stronger action and forceful responses from their governments. Once these compulsions go mainstream, soft, dovish, or conciliatory approaches are seen as weak, cowardly, and treasonous. As a result, advisory systems, policy deliberation patterns, and the formulation of policy choices get shaped by public and media pressure. Conversely, governments also call upon their peoples for greater national unity and unwavering domestic support. 

Third, the desire of any state to defend national territory or interest promotes maneuvers to secure strategic advantage, not only in terms of weapons, but also by way of favorable geographic locations for possible access, control, and positioning of strategic assets. This security posturing, however, is often perceived as a threat by other states, and therefore brings about a vicious cycle of security competition. 

Lastly, what further aggravates tensions and instability is the invariable property of the international system that states will always have an imperfect understanding of each other’s plans and intentions, which is why there is mistrust and concern for the relative distribution of capabilities or the balance of power. For example, China is anxious over the U.S.-led security alignments along its periphery, while the Philippines fears China defecting from mutual agreements and resorting to the use of military force to assert maritime claims. 

Foreign Policy Behavior of Small States and the Logic of Balancing 

Prevailing environments, along with existing capabilities, shape and determine the policy choices of states. To alleviate China’s misperceptions regarding the Philippines, it is important to note the conventional foreign policy behaviors of small states from the theoretical and structural points of analysis. In 1977, Robert Rothstein argued that a small state “cannot obtain security primarily by use of its own capabilities, and that it must rely fundamentally on the aid of other states, institutions, processes, or developments to do so.” In other words, small states primarily prefer diplomatic instruments, approaches of legalism, institutionalism, and moralism, as opposed to hard power. 

However, in the case of hard power, balancing is a natural course of action. For Stephen Walt, balancing is the act of “allying with others against the prevailing threat.” Put differently, balancing enhances a balancer state’s strategic and deterrence capability by aligning with assisting states vis-à-vis threatening states. Accordingly, balancing strategies are fueled by threat perceptions, while power asymmetry shapes threat perceptions, which is why size greatly matters in international politics. Moreover, balancing strategies are an age-old practice in geopolitics; there are innumerable examples that can be drawn from history. Not long after the outbreak of World War II in the 1930s, the Communist Party of China (CPC) balanced with the Kuomintang (KMT) to form a united front against the overwhelming strength of the Japanese Imperial Army. 

In the wake of the Cold War in the 1960s, Cuba accommodated medium- and intermediate-range Soviet ballistic missiles (SS-4 Sandal and R-14 Chusovaya) for fear of a large-scale U.S. military assault on Cuban soil. In the same period, China leaned towards the Soviet Union against the U.S.; and when relations between China and the Soviet Union soured, China gravitated towards the U.S. and balanced against the Soviet Union. More recently, Iran expressly sought the diplomatic and political support of Russia and China in the P5+1 nuclear talks. 

In other words, alignments and alliances represent the commonality and convergence of interests to achieve a sense of security. It must be understood that balancing and containment are two different concepts, that is, containment is offensive, while balancing is defensive. Balancing strategies, however, may be exacerbated by vested interests or ulterior motives, particularly those of the assisting state. Clearly, the imbalance of power and difference in the correlation of forces between the Philippines and China exposed the Philippines’ vulnerability as a small state with limited capabilities. Thus, the Philippines decided to internationalize the SCS issue and seek diplomatic, political, and military support from allies and partners. As Robert Ross correctly said, none of China’s neighbors can unilaterally balance against China.  

Addressing Perceptions and Misperceptions 

To correct each other’s blinding misperceptions on the SCS, the relevant actors should understand the rationale of each other’s actions and behavior while maintaining the proper mindset in interacting with one another. 

For the Philippines, three concerns ought to be addressed: (1) sources of the Chinese threat; (2) notions on Philippines-U.S. alliance; and (3) the distinctive and autonomous roles of the United States and the Philippines. First, there are several sources of what is perceived, and sensationalized by the media, as the “China threat”: the interception of small Philippine supply ships by much larger Chinese vessels; the “water-canoning” of Filipino fishermen by the Chinese Coast Guard; strong statements issued by the Chinese foreign ministry or Chinese state-owned media; and the PLA-related mobilizations in the SCS. Essentially, the accumulation of these incidents also means the accumulation of Chinese threat perceptions in the Philippines. Concomitantly, the Philippines will lose face if it cannot have its fishermen fish at Scarborough Shoal, and if its civilian supply vessels’ access to currently held features in the Spratlys are impeded. On Philippine alignment with the United States, it must be understood that in addition to balancing considerations, the latter adroitly persuades the former to agree to certain security arrangements. After all, international relations is also a “game of influence,” which is why the trajectory of Philippine foreign policy will always be influenced by China’s behavior and the United States’ strategic calculus. 

Second, Philippine-American alliance was built way back in WWII and was initially forged against Japanese Imperialism, just as China conducts major military parades every 10 years since the founding of the People’s Republic. By the same token, as part of the defense treaty, the United States has a treaty obligation to defend an ally under attack; and when under threat, the moral obligation to provide aid – doing otherwise could lead to a loss of confidence in the U.S.-led network of alliances. This also explains why taking sides on the territorial disputes is one thing and coming to the aid of an ally under attack or threat of armed attack is another. 

Third, China should acknowledge that its issues with the United States are different from issues with the Philippines. Manila and Washington are two separate and distinct sovereign state actors: the United States is a superpower while the Philippines is a small state. If China wants to send a message to the U.S., it must consider the implications of its actions to smaller powers in the region, such as Vietnam and the Philippines. China should also not consider the United States the “root of all evil,” because if such mentality continues, the invitation for bilateral talks should be extended to the United States and not to the Philippines. 

Concerning the Chinese side, the Philippines should understand China at both the macro and micro levels. At the micro level, China would lose face and political capital domestically if it openly abandons the historic basis of its claims in the SCS. At the macro level, it is premature to think that China is yet another conventional imperialist state or a rising hegemon, as China’s growing profile at virtually every metric of non-military national power allows it to be at the center of multiple partnerships and inter-regional multilateral initiatives. The Philippines also needs to realize that China has the right to rise, the right to increase its military budget and develop its own military (including the advancement of its own aircraft carriers and stealth fighters), and the right to conduct joint patrols and military exercises with countries like Russia, as it is a sovereign state. Moreover, China’s rise should not necessarily mean that it is a threat, as no single issue should define the sum of Philippines-China relations. In a trilateral point of view, therefore, the Philippines should be considerate of China’s sensitivity towards the U.S., China should consider the Philippines’ sensitivity towards it, and the United States should consider China’s sensitivity towards them both.  

Avoiding a Great Leap Backward in Sino-Philippine Relations 

For actors at the core of the disputes, it is important for misperceptions or conflicting perceptions to be transformed into positive interaction in order to avoid a downward spiral in bilateral relations. This could be done in two ways. First, both countries could de-escalate tensions through face-saving measures of mutual accommodation. Second, they could advance the overall structure of Philippines-China relations through diverse bilateral management regimes. The first measure is the appropriate precondition before deciding to consult on the more sensitive sovereignty-related issues. To ease tensions, policy actions must be aimed towards mutual concessions and conflict avoidance. The simplest way this could be achieved is for both sides to functionally agree on fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal as a shared maritime priority concern, since the PCA already ruled it to be a traditional fishing ground of both Filipinos and Chinese. Another issue is the right of access of Philippine civilian supply vessels to resupply to currently occupied features in the Spratlys. 

Alongside this, both parties should commit to non-militarization of the disputed areas, refrain from using confrontational rhetoric and from forcing each other’s red lines in public so as to avoid either party from losing face. Second, the Philippines and China must work towards developing bilateral relations in line with the realization of the “Community of Common Destiny,” or the structuring of national interests with the regional public goods of peace, prosperity, stability, and harmony. The two countries may adopt formal and informal bilateral mechanisms in addition to existing ones (e.g., China-Malaysia Strategic Consultation Meetings, China-Vietnam Steering Committee for Bilateral Cooperation). Additionally, both countries could establish a maritime security framework that would strengthen maritime partnership through the sustainable management of fisheries, protection of the marine ecosystem, common management of freedom and safety of navigation, and the coordination of maritime security operations. It should be noted, however, that dialogues and mechanisms are not enough if the bilateral consensus agreed upon will not be sustained by good faith and lasting commitments.

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