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Wrangling in the South China Sea

Dec 23, 2020
  • Nie Wenjuan

    Deputy Director of Institute of International Relations, China Foreign Affairs University

There was a period after the South China Sea arbitration in 2016 when the situation seemed to be stable and controllable. The year 2020, however, has been a turning point, presenting new issues. New conditions have emerged with heightened rivalry between China and the United States. Tensions have reached an unprecedented level.

1. The Trump administration has adjusted its policy stance in the South China Sea. On July 13, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement saying that many of China’s South China Sea claims lack a basis in international law, indicating a turn from not taking sides to openly taking sides and giving a green light to a series of subsequent U.S. interventions in the maritime area.

2. U.S. military interventions in the South China Sea area are increasingly frequent and risky. Take the so-called freedom of navigation operations, for instance: Only five were conducted in the eight years of the Obama presidency, but the Trump administration has carried out 25 to date, nine of them so far this year.

More serious, the standoff between the two militaries has pretty much become a normal state. In the first half of 2020, the U.S. carried out more than 3,000 operations of military aircraft and more than 60 operations involving ships. The USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike groups conducted drills in waters of the South China Sea in July, which was the first time since 2014 that the U.S. military had dispatched twin aircraft carriers for military exercises in the area.

The U.S. has also on many occasions sent B-1B strategic bombers and E-8C spy planes to the South China Sea region, even nudging close to the airspace of Guangdong and Hainan provinces. The risk of the two militaries triggering an unintended conflict has dramatically increased.

3. U.S. finger-pointing at China continued to escalate. During the Obama presidency, the U.S. stigmatized China as a “rule saboteur” in the South China Sea region. The Trump administration’s July 13, 2020, statement on the South China Sea for the first time alleged that China was attempting to build a maritime empire in the area, that it believes might makes right and that it intimidates and coerces other nations.

The emergence of these new issues and conditions in the South China Sea region prompts us to rethink China-U.S. relations.

First, the bilateral geopolitical struggle is coming out into the open. What are China and the U.S. competing for in the South China Sea? The sequence of U.S. policy goals in the South China Sea region in recent years, from high to low, is: asking China to stop militarizing South China Sea features, preventing China from establishing air defense identification zones and preserving U.S. freedom of navigation in the area.

There was no substantial conflict between the two parties over such issues in 2020. But tensions are building up in the South China Sea, which shows that the situation has taken on strategic implications that transcend specific issues. It has become a geopolitical arena for China-U.S. competition.

China seeks peace and stability in the South China Sea region. For the U.S., regional peace and cooperation mean the expansion of Chinese influence, which is what it resolutely opposes. Therefore, to a great extent, the U.S. side needs to foment “crises.”

Second, the South China Sea situation has evolved from its previous pattern of small countries being used as pawns and has become one of the U.S. getting directly involved. This is a new characteristic indicating that the U.S. has a strategic determination to engage in direct confrontation with China.

During the Obama presidency, the U.S. supported the Philippines in challenging Chinese rights and interests in the South China Sea through legal channels. Under Donald Trump, the U.S. has gradually moved to the forefront of disputes, directly confronting China and showcasing U.S. determination to engage in strategic confrontation.

Third, military force is an option in the U.S. strategic confrontation. Although the likelihood of an all-out war between the  two nuclear powers is very low, the U.S. has engaged in brinkmanship in the South China Sea and exerted maximum pressure on China. So the risk of China-U.S. military conflict in the South China Sea remains high, and could become a powder keg that blows up bilateral ties.

With the inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the United States, the South China Sea situation in 2021 will display a certain continuity, while at the same time seeing some adjustments. It will continue to be a key arena for China-U.S. geostrategic competition. The Biden administration’s strategic goal in the region will remain to prevent Chinese influence from expanding.

Strategic competition between major countries is always based on military strength. The Biden administration will want to preserve the U.S. military presence in the South China Sea. Freedom of navigation operations, military exercises, naval patrols and arms sales will therefore persist.

Biden may differ from Trump in his approach to achieving strategic goals. The challenge for him will be how to prevent China from expanding its influence as much as possible without triggering a military conflict. Biden will look for pragmatic innovations when it comes to approach, which in principle will include the following aspects:

• In contrast with the Trump administration’s U.S.-centric model, the Biden team will likely be more in favor of multilateral collaboration — that is, a “U.S.+” model. There will be more U.S.-led allied operations featuring multiple participants, including Japan, India, Australia and some EU and ASEAN member countries.

• Identity politics will be in vogue. The Biden administration will continue to hold high the banner of “rules” while constantly framing China in a negative light and ultimately sticking negative labels onto it, such as “empire,” “hegemony,” and “non-democracy.” The U.S. will play the role of “The Just” — the one who helps Southeast Asian nations “safeguard” their rights.

• Any lukewarm identification with China by states in the region will pose a key challenge. China’s rise in the region is in some ways a matter of historical necessity, and a U.S. attitude of confrontation can do harm.

Objectively, while Chinese strength is growing steadily and cooperative diplomacy is its standard practice, U.S. attacks on the Chinese character and motives could have lasting negative effects that could become a major challenge for China in building authority as a regional leader.

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