The USS Decatur, left, narrowly misses PRC Warship 170, which cut in front of it near Gaven Reef in the South China Sea on Sunday Sept 30. Photo: US Navy/ gCaptain

China-US relations are rapidly deteriorating across many fronts. Prominent and worrying are their increasingly acrimonious military-to-military relations, particularly in the South China Sea. Now the US Navy is proposing a major show of force over several days in the Taiwan Strait and against China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea. Given the context, this could result in military confrontation, and even conflict.

This proposal is in keeping with the recent more aggressive US policy and actions against China in the South China Sea. The first indication that a new policy was coming surfaced on May 3 when the White House announced that there would be “near-term and long-term consequences” for China’s “militarization” there.

The Pentagon then rescinded its invitation to China to participate in the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise because “China’s behavior [in the South China Sea] is inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the RIMPAC exercise.”

Then in June at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Defense Secretary James Mattis warned China that the rescinding of the invitation was a “relatively small consequence and that there are much larger consequences in the future.”

On October 4, US Vice-President Michael Pence gave a Cold War–like “it’s us or them” speech criticizing China across the board and highlighting the recent “unsafe” challenge by a Chinese destroyer to the USS Decatur as it was undertaking a freedom-of-navigation operation (FONOP) against China’s claims in the South China Sea. Some analysts think that the physical challenge was a reflection of a Chinese policy decision to increase the risk and potential cost of such encounters.

The US has been stepping up its military activities in the sea, including what China considers provocative exercises and FONOPs in its ‘near seas.’ More threatening, the US has stepped up overflights of the East and South China seas its nuclear-capable B-52s

Under President Donald Trump the US has been stepping up its military activities in the sea, including what China considers provocative exercises and FONOPs in its “near seas.” More threatening, the US has stepped up overflights of the East and South China seas its nuclear-capable B-52s.

China has responded in kind to what it sees as the growing US threat.  For example, its air force spokesman said the landing of nuclear-capable bombers at Woody Island was training to improve its ability to “reach all territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions as well as preparation for … the battle for the South China Sea.”

It also undertook major naval and air exercises in the South China Sea and around Taiwan, including a live-fire exercise in the East China Sea that some saw as a warning to Taiwan, Japan and the US.

Some say all this tit-for-tat is simply posturing. Perhaps it is, but physical posturing can still result in confrontation, especially if it is representative of national interests.

Pence declared that “China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the Western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies.” He vowed: “We will not be intimidated, and we will not stand down.”

Despite this bluster, some in the US analytic policy community are beginning to accept a new reality. In an article in Foreign Policy, veteran policy analysts Robert Manning and James Pryzstup conclude that “the reality is that US core interests are not really at stake [in the South China Sea] and China knows it. The United States needs to come to terms with the great strategic questions of our time: What Chinese role in the Asia-Pacific can it live with?”

The proposal for a massive US show of force is still a draft and other officials will provide input regarding potential reactions from China and other countries in the region. However, the revelation of its existence will give China time to prepare its responses. These are likely to be calculated and proportionate, such as exercises and challenges of their own as well as an overall increased military presence there.

This of course would increase the likelihood of purposeful encounters, possible incidents and even collisions between assets of the opposing military forces. China’s nationalists – who are an influential domestic political force – will be watching and waiting to put pressure on China’s leadership if it fails to respond to their satisfaction.

The basic problem is that this contretemps is not really about “freedom of navigation” or China’s militarization of its occupied features or even its intimidation of other claimants. The US-China struggle for control of the South China Sea is symptomatic of a much deeper “clash of civilizations.” Both consider it their right and destiny to dominate and shape the international order to fit their needs. As such, they believe that existing international norms and rules do not apply to them if their observance would go against their “national interest.”

Their face-off in the South China Sea is thus a contest of political and economic systems and their underpinning raison d’être. This clash of cultures and self-images is what makes the outcome so important. It is also why it and the competition between the two in the South China Sea is being so carefully watched by those likely to be directly and immediately affected – as well as the rest of the world.

In what could be a very dangerous assumption, some think China assumes that the US will not go to war with it over the South China Sea issues because the question of ownership of militarily indefensible flyspecks and the resources there are not a core US national-security interest. Indeed, the real question for the US is: Is  it prepared to engage in a kinetic conflict over issues that are not really a “core” national interest?

So far Washington seems to have concluded that support for its “friends and allies” or for nebulous concepts like the international order or the freedom of navigation for warships are not sufficient reasons to do so. More important, it is beginning to realize that its “allies and friends” do not want to see a confrontation between the US and China, at least one that will involve or negatively affect them – and it is difficult to imagine one that would not.

The US may or may not “invite” other countries to join these operations. Even if it does not, the region’s countries will be under considerable pressure to choose between the two regarding these US-China issues – and in general. Their participation – or not– may be seen as supporting one or the other, and will bear consequences.

Indeed, to do so, they would be putting themselves squarely in China’s crosshairs for economic and political punishment. The US might not like the political outcome. Some – perhaps many – may choose not to participate. They might judge that for them this is not the time, nor the place, nor the way to demonstrate support for US interests and values vis-a-vis a dangerous potential enemy. Some just do not want such involvement of outside powers.

Assuming there is a military standoff short of conflict, the question then becomes, what next? As Christopher Hill, former US deputy secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, says, the US tends to view international disputes “as military challenges that are merely masquerading as political issues. In fact, they are usually the opposite, which is why the world’s most complex conflicts are rarely resolved by [military] intervention.”

This is likely to be yet another example.

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Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.

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