On October 27th, a U.S. destroyer, the USS Lassen,sailed within twelve nautical miles of an artificial Chinese island at Subi Reef in the South China Sea. The United States framed this as a “freedom of navigation patrol” (FONOP) designed to demonstrate that the U.S. does not recognize Chinese claims to exclusive economic zones around artificial islands. Despite previous warnings and strongly worded statements, China did not contest the Lassen‘s passage through its claimed waters. This was the right decision. There are compelling reasons to believe China should not risk a military confrontation over U.S. patrols in the South China Sea, no matter how much international and domestic media present China’s lack of force as a blow to its prestige.
First, let’s examine what happened during the patrol. A FONOP has to demonstrate that one party does not recognize the other’s claims to sovereignty over a particular portion of the sea. In order to do this, that party has to perform actions that are prohibited within another nation’s territorial waters, like conducting routine military operations. These activities include launching aircraft, turning on radars for weapons systems, and fishing. Reports suggest that the Lassen did none of these things. Its escorting aircraft did not fly within twelve nautical miles of China’s artificial islands, and the destroyer did not perform any relevant operations. In fact, the Lassen‘s abstention from these activities qualified its patrol as “innocent passage,” or the right of navigation allowed to ships within another country’s territorial waters. On the 27th, there actually was nothing to contest. Wittingly or unwittingly, the U.S. recognized Chinese claims during an ostensible freedom of navigation patrol.
It is entirely possible that China would have contested a properly executed FONOP, but it chose not to do so given the Lassen‘s adherence to innocent passage. Chinese ships could have rammed the Lassen, just as Soviet ships rammed U.S. vessels in the Black Sea in 1988. However, such a reaction was unlikely. The issues at stake are simply not significant enough to risk a major military confrontation. The South China Sea is not an economically important region for China in the scheme of things. The status of territorial waters will neither promote nor disrupt global trade flows through the South China Sea, and even those trade routes veer far away from the area around Subi Reef. The military significance of these zones is limited as well. Chinese installations will remain on its artificial islands whether or not they generate their own exclusionary zones, and in the event of a conflict, their legal status will be largely irrelevant. Overall, it simply does not matter from a strategic perspective whether artificial islands generate their own territorial waters or not.
These contests in the South China Sea are thus largely symbolic. The United States decided to pursue FONOPs in large part because of a general perception in Washington that little can be done to counter a general increase in China’s power and assertiveness. The U.S. wanted to demonstrate that it still has the capacity to challenge China, even if over relatively marginal concerns. FONOPs fit the bill for this task perfectly. International law is not on China’s side, and most regional governments agree with the general principle being asserted even if they will not publicly say so. All of the above are reasons why challenging U.S. FONOPs would be a poor use of Chinese capabilities. The ground of this particular contest– whether artificial islands generate sovereign territorial waters– was carefully selected by the United States. One should avoid fighting on the enemy’s chosen terrain.
It is prudent for China to avoid conflict with the United States as long as possible. In purely pragmatic terms, the incentives for conflict are higher for a declining power than a rising power. A rising power benefits from each additional year that the balance of power tips in its favor, while a declining power loses its ability to stem a seemingly inevitable shift in international status. The incentives for the United States and China reflect this classic paradigm. If the U.S. is unwilling to accommodate China’s rise and instead chooses to cling to its primacy in Asia, it will ultimately have to defend its legacy privileges with force. Its ability to prevail in a confrontation declines as China grows stronger. The opposite is true for China. As China’s economy surpasses that of the United States, its military modernizes, and it extends its political and economic influence throughout Asia, the change in the balance of power will appear as a fait accompli.
U.S. patrols in the South China Sea will continue, and the Chinese government will face pressure to respond from nationalists in the PLA, the Party, and the Chinese public. Put simply, this is not the hill that China should die on. Any confrontation in the South China Sea would risk a devastating conflict at a time when Chinese capabilities remain significantly weaker than the force that the world’s predominant military power, the United States, can still bring to bear in Asia. And if the current spiral of tensions ever leads Washington to cynically believe war is inevitable, the logic of the power transition suggests that strategists would prefer it come soon, before it is too late for America to win.
Some in China have already begun framing U.S. actions as a deliberate provocation that should be countered with restraint. As an editorial in the Global Times argues, “We should stay calm. If we feel disgraced and utter some furious words, it will only make the U.S. achieve its goal of irritating us.” However, the same editorial counsels demonstrate China’s resolve by locking weapons systems on any U.S. ships that come within twelve nautical miles of the artificial islands. This sort of bluster can only play to the U.S.’s strengths, even if it seems to satisfy China’s national honor.
Beijing must strike a delicate balance. The Communist Party has been shifting the basis of its domestic legitimacy from economic development to nationalism for some time, focusing on China assuming its rightful place in the world. If the CCP leadership appears weak by refusing to confront the U.S., it may risk eroding the foundations of its legitimacy. The Party might skirt around this problem by shifting public attention to other issues, including less dangerous battles with the United States in international fora. Yet, regardless of how the CCP addresses this problem, there is a clear contradiction between prudent strategy in great power politics and the sources of the Party’s domestic legitimacy.
The basic strategic principles at work are clear. If China believes that a confrontation with the United States is inevitable, then it should bide its time as long as possible, or at least until an issue with vital significance is at stake. Maritime rights generated by artificial islands in the South China Sea do not pass this test. China can let the U.S. sail whatever it likes around its artificial islands, and the U.S. will still remain powerless to halt China’s rise.
Whether the Chinese government will adopt this strategy depends on how well it can balance its long-term objectives to appear strong to a domestic audience. To do this, it need only demonstrate that recklessness and strength are not the same thing.