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Dominoes in the South China Sea

Aug 21, 2020
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The recent policy statement on the South China Sea by Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, marks a significant change. Against the backdrop of an intensifying Sino-U.S. game, the change carries more strategic connotations and could lead to conflict. It will be a major test of the ability of China and the United States to manage differences effectively.

Pompeo’s policy statement is the most significant change in U.S. South China Sea policy since 2010. At that time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton identified the South China Sea explicitly as “a matter of U.S. national interest,” thus formally establishing a U.S. interventionist policy. It also showed that the United States had begun to place the South China Sea within the framework of its Asia-Pacific rebalancing and its strategic competition with China.

In the face of the evolving situation in the South China Sea, the U.S. has been exerting pressure on China, but even after the Huangyan Island incident, the Philippines’ arbitration ruling, the Sino-Vietnamese maritime confrontation and many other crises, it has not openly changed its sovereignty stance.

But Pompeo’s recent statement clearly declares that most of China’s claims in the South China Sea are illegal and makes clear the U.S. position on China’s disputes with its neighbors over Huangyan, Ren’ai Reef and the Wan’an Basin. It denies Chinese sovereignty. This not only abandons the policy position of the U.S. in place for decades but also further clarifies the U.S. intent to intervene.

This qualitative change in U.S. policy in the South China Sea is part of an all-around pressure approach to China and has a more significant strategic connotation.

Since the Trump administration came to power, it has implemented a competitive strategy toward China through such policy tools as a trade war, a technology blockade, cultural decoupling and intervention in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but the South China Sea was not its focus.

Pompeo’s policy statement indicates that the Trump administration has begun to pick up the South China Sea card again to strengthen its pressure campaign. By playing this card, the United States can attempt to push back China’s maritime rights achievements in recent years that reversed its unfavorable strategic position in the South China Sea. In addition, the United States can aggravate China’s conflicts with other countries that have claims in the South China Sea — creating an opportunity to include Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia in its toolbox against China — and at the same time make it difficult for the ongoing consultations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea to conclude.

These strategic gains have driven a qualitative change in U.S. policy and heighten the risk of conflict in the already rapidly declining China-U.S. relationship. Historically, the South China Sea has been a focal point for a potential major crisis between China and the United States — note the 2001 collision, the Immaculate Conception case in 2009 and the USS Decatur incident.

In addition, every major change in U.S. policy in the South China Sea has been accompanied by intensified military operations. Before the Pompeo statement, the U.S. military had already increased the frequency and intensity of its operations in the South China Sea. In order to implement Pompeo’s policy statement, the U.S. military has recently undertaken frequent and provocative reconnaissance along China’s sovereign waters, sent two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea and carried out multinational joint exercises. It has also hinted at its “tolerance” for the risk of a firefight.

What’s more dangerous is that in the current domestic political climate in the United States, the Trump administration, in the face of a worsening coronavirus epidemic and with the president’s re-election campaign in crisis, has been putting extreme and unrelenting pressure on China, and is likely to provoke an unscrupulous showdown in the South China Sea, prompting China to hit back.

Many people, including many in the U.S. strategic community, are concerned that the risk of China and the U.S. sliding into a new cold war — or even a hot war — is increasing rapidly and that the South China Sea is most likely to be where it starts.

For years, the United States has viewed the South China Sea as a litmus test of whether China can maintain its peaceful rise, and China has viewed it as a litmus test of whether the United States can accept China’s rise. In the current situation, if not handled carefully, the South China Sea issue could become the first domino to fall in a Sino-U.S. conflict.

In view of this, it is imperative that the two armies restart dialogue and strengthen crisis management. The recent call between the Chinese and U.S. heads of defense could help break the deadlock in the dialogue. The two militaries should establish and reinforce the basic bottom-line cognition of non-conflict as being in the common interest of both countries. In addition, China and the U.S. should initiate important communication mechanisms, such as the dialogue between the two naval chiefs and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as appropriate, to further refine consultations on the avoidance of friction between front-line forces. In the medium and long term, the two militaries need to make greater efforts to build a mechanism to ensure strategic stability in an increasingly competitive situation.

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