China Postures, America Signals:
Scorpions in a Bottle Over the South China Sea Claims
Both China and the United States understand that a military confrontation between them over sovereignty issues relating to the South China Sea is not in either’s interests. Both have enough domestic issues, especially China, and international issues elsewhere, especially the United States, to realize that military hostility with a primary economic partner is not a good idea. This realization was evident in the polite rhetoric at recent talks between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry where the U.S. pushed for diplomatic resolutions to the South China Sea disputes. Equally evident though was that neither is willing to budge from what it considers actions key to protecting vital national interests.
While the United States has not officially taken a position on the disputes and does not have a proverbial “dog in the fight” over territorial claims, its interests come peripherally through commitments to allies and interests in regional stability, and directly in maintaining freedom of navigation of key shipping routes in the disputed areas. Over $5 trillion worth of trade moves through disputed Sea Lanes of Commerce (SLOC) ever year. If China controlled these SLOCs countries might be required to seek China’s permission to transit. If China interfered with access to those trade routes and countries had to transit goods another way, there could be a significant negative ramifications to global economies. Additionally, not only would SLOC control garner China considerable commercial power, it would potentially allow China to keep U.S. naval forces at bay. The United States therefore considers both the potential commercial and military consequences of extended Chinese maritime claims untenable.
However, Wang also made the Chinese position clear at the May 2015 meeting in Beijing, stating: “The determination of the Chinese side to safeguard our own sovereignty and territorial integrity is as firm as a rock, and it is unshakable.” For China, the idea of territorial integrity is linked to rising Chinese nationalism and regaining the stature it lost during the century of humiliation endured after Western imperialism and Japanese intervention from 1839-1949.
All countries have made historical and legal claims to the disputed areas. China is by far the largest claimant within what is called the nine-dash line, running south and east from its most southern province of Hainan, indicating the multiple, overlapping territorial claims. But, perhaps not surprisingly, each countries legal claim denies the claim of the others. And so China has increasingly reverted to the simple legal adage that possession is nine-tenths of the law and is staking its claim by possession.
Since neither party wants a military confrontation but neither is willing to back down from increasingly protective stances, the risk of a military confrontation appears to stem primarily from miscalculation, or escalation after an accident or mishap. Given increasing Chinese bravado in reclamation efforts, that’s a real risk. China postures for possession and control, and the U.S. signals its rejection of Chinese claims. Neither wants a military confrontation so they dance around each other like scorpions in a bottle.
China and six other countries – Brunei, Indonesia, Viet Nam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore – are involved in some or all of the various disputes, which have been percolating in some cases for centuries. Beyond nationalism and geostrategic benefits of sovereignty claims are claims over resources in the disputed areas. Estimates for area oil and natural gas reserves vary, but for countries with booming energy demands like China even the lowest estimates, particularly for natural gas, would provide it a significant supply boost. The South China Sea is also a rich fishing ground. Approximately 10% of fish caught globally are caught in the South China Sea, making it a multi-billion industry and a source of livelihood for many people in the region.
While other countries involved in the dispute have engaged in upgrading their South China Sea outposts as well, Chinese land reclamation efforts have been by far the most extensive. China is building man-made islands near Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, both potentially capable of accommodating an airstrip. If an airstrip is needed, that likely means that China intends a sustained military presence on the real estate.
If Chinese actions in 2013 regarding a disputed island with Japan are any indication, China could well then declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) around those islands to restrict air traffic. While the Chinese Foreign Ministry specifically stated in 2014 it was not considering an ADIZ in the South China Sea that could change if an airstrip is established somewhere. In the 2013 case of China’s self-proclaimed ADIZ, the United States flew B-52’s into the area to demonstrate its objection and non-recognition of China’s claim. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that the U.S. plans to send air and sea patrols near these artificial islands, again signaling U.S. rejection of Chinese sovereignty claims.
These kind of scenarios are, however, inherently dangerous.
In 2001, a Chinese F-8 fighter jet bumped a U.S. EP-3 signals intelligence aircraft flying 70 miles off the Chinese province of Hainan. That mid-air collision resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot and the U.S. aircraft and its crew being forced to land on Hainan Island, and an overall tense situation between the U.S. and China, particularly until the U.S. crew was returned to the United States. The determination of the two countries to resolve the situation without escalation indicates recognition of the importance of a stable U.S.–China relationship. But testing that resolve is precarious.
There is a very real danger that a similar maritime or air incident could take place in the South China Sea. Chinese military vessels have already harassed U.S. naval surveillance ships Impeccable and Victorious in June 2009. Expanded Chinese submarine capabilities also increase the risk of an incident. In 2009 a Chinese submarine collided with the towed sonar array of a U.S. destroyer. While the United States military did not believe the collision intentional and referred to it as an “inadvertent encounter” it demonstrates the increased potential for mishaps.
Because intentions can sometimes be difficult to discern miscalculation can occur, prompting a response that leads to escalation that nobody wants, but can be difficult to dial back.
Beyond potential direct U.S.-China confrontation the U.S. could also be pulled into a dispute through an ally, specifically the Philippines. The Philippines has announced its intentions to extend surveying and potentially natural gas test drilling on Reed Bank. That could trigger a Chinese response leading to a military confrontation with the Philippines. Since the U.S. and the Philippines have had a Mutual Defense Treaty since 1951, the treaty could obligate the U.S. to become involved.
Given the intransigence of both sides’ positions, there is a growing fear of an inevitable conflict. Once something is declared inevitable, it usually is. Therefore vigorous efforts must be undertaken to avoid that scenario.
China and the U.S. signed a Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) in 1998 toward developing “rules of the road” similar to those regarding potential Incidents at Sea rules established between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. Unfortunately there has been little progress toward that goal and the MMCA has been fairly ineffective. Nevertheless, establishing confidence-building measures is a goal worthy of continued diplomatic efforts.
The United States could also support regional actors such as the Philippines in their efforts to protect their territorial claims. That would mean assisting the Philippines with capabilities toward deterring China, and so runs the risk of aggravating China. Consequently, any such assistance would need to be coupled with both diplomatic efforts toward China, and tempering inclinations toward bold moves against Beijing by the recipient country.
And finally, plans for crisis management must be in place in case an incident occurs, toward avoiding escalation. Perhaps the most positive aspect of this entire situation is that a military confrontation between the U.S. and China is recognized on both sides as not in either’s interests. Hopefully actors on both sides will keep that in mind as they proceed to protect their interests, remembering that if one scorpion stings the other, both die.