Recent American intervention in the South China Sea territorial disputes may produce more harm than good. US involvement may cause regional countries to miscalculate when dealing with one another and further enflame tensions in the South China Sea.
The Americans’ recent intervention in the territorial disputes of the South China Sea – between China and other claimants from the ASEAN countries and between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands – is widely considered a significant element in implementing the US Asia-Pacific (AP for short) strategy. With tension escalating in recent days, the Americans’ actions have stirred up a new round of discussions about the goal, the role and the effectiveness of the US AP strategy.
Generally speaking, the current intervention has taken on two obvious characters. The first is that the US stance has obviously favored its allies and partners in these disputes. The Obama administration openly expressed its worry about China's decision to upgrade the administrative level of Sansha City and the establishment of a new military garrison there and criticized China’s negative attitude towards the negotiations of the binding Code of Conduct about the South China Sea. Regarding Diaoyu Islands, despite the neutral stance from the State Department, US defense forces chose to conduct military exercises which are interpreted to be aimed at retaking the islands following a possible Chinese military takeover. The famous Armitage Report, claiming that China should be the major target of the U.S.-Japan alliance, was also published in such a sensitive moment.
The other character is that the US continues to favor the use of military tools to achieve its strategic goals. US officials and scholars have stressed that the AP strategy is a comprehensive one, which includes not only the military aspect but also economic, political and multilateral institutions. But in fact, military exercises, military assistance and arms sales are often overemphasized when the Obama administration strengthens its ties with allies and partners, especially when dealing with the disputes in South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands.
To be honest, these territory disputes, deeply entangled with historical, cultural problems and public emotions, have existed even before America’s intervention. But actions taken by the Obama administration have undoubtedly added more fuel to the flames. Such actions have made regional countries more emotional and nervous instead of making the region more stable and peaceful. America’s partiality has made certain regional countries feel overconfident and become more ambitious. If left unchecked, it could possibly lead regional countries to miscalculate not only their own capacity and situations, but also about the others’ intentions and the extent of support it would receive from US in case of a real crisis. Additionally, American partiality may give other countries more incentive to protect their territorial interests or resolve disputes with military force.
As a result, if continued this situation will lead to a vicious circle in three aspects.
The first is the escalation of those disputes. Despite the current self-constraint and cautiousness by most of the countries involved, the unavoidable miscalculation will lead every country to think: “You are the winner but I am the loser in this campaign, so I have to retaliate.” Under such circumstances, the management of those territory disputes will be more difficult.
The second is that hostility and strategic misunderstanding will deepen among regional countries. The consequences of territory disputes will go beyond and eventually harm the overall relations between the countries involved. They will be inclined to judge the situation from the worst scenario, and strategic mutual trust inevitably becomes the victim. Defensive behaviors may be seen as aggressive, measures based on domestic consideration be seen as strategic shift, rhetorical attacks may bring substantive results.
The third is that the policies of regional countries could become more radical. Nationalism will play an increasingly important role in the policymaking process due to the escalation of disputes and accumulation of hostility. Most regional countries, under pressure by the economic, political and social consequences of the global financial crisis, will have to yield themselves, in varying degrees, to public opinion motivated by strong nationalism and may take more radical policies to consolidate their political status.
These territory disputes and competition among regional countries were supposed to present the US with greater opportunity and legitimacy to intervene in regional affairs, accelerate its military redeployment and ensure regional allies and partners could be tightly integrated with US forces. Furthermore, the US also hopes to see a more favorable triangle relationship between the US, China and China’s neighboring countries, which is characterized by relatively stable relations between the US and China, closer relations between the US and other regional countries and more strained relations between China and its neighbors. However, the three vicious circles mentioned above may disrupt such wishful thinking.
If regional countries are become more radical in territorial disputes and even other issues, if relations are getting more and more intense while the political environment worsens, it must be difficult for the US government to communicate and cooperate with those countries. Additionally, the escalation of disputes and the rising possibility of a real conflict could also reduce the space for the US to retain a certain leeway. The US government may ultimately have to face the dilemma of either being dragged into a military conflict or losing its credit among allies and partners.
More seriously, American partiality has brought more uncertainty to the US-China relationship, which is currently undergoing a critical reorientation. How the US and China interact in the Asia-Pacific in coming days will largely determine the essence and structure of the US-China relationship and the strategic landscape of the whole region for a generation or more. Many people both in China and the US are willing to believe that the Obama administration’s AP strategy is aimed to avoid the final strategic showdown with China. But the consequences of what it has done can only add more evidence to the pessimistic argument that the conflict between US and China is just a matter of time.
Wang Honggang is the Deputy Director of the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.