A US-led joint naval operation in the South China Sea in November 2018. Photo: US Navy

Analysts outside China are now arguing that it would be in China’s long-term strategic interests to dial down its aggressive approach and compromise with its rival claimants in the South China Sea. To paraphrase, they maintain that China would gain strategic advantage by managing the disputes without coercion (at least overt and direct coercion). 

According to this theory, by doing so, China would prove that it is “a responsible power and not trying to revise the international order.” Then, with its economic and cultural attraction it could “peel away US partners in the region.” By moderating its “aggressive” behavior and striking “equitable resource sharing deals with other claimants,” it would “lock in its gains to date while laying the foundations for improved relations … and a greater leadership role in the region.”

In other words, all China has to do to achieve its strategic goals is to “play nice.”

Oh, if only it were that simple and straightforward.

This argument ignores the strategic context and the core problem – US political and military meddling in the region. The US and China see each other as existential threats.

The US has publicly declared China a “strategic competitor” and a “revisionist” nation. It believes that the US and China are engaged in “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” in the Indo-Pacific region. 

China believes that the US wants to contain and constrain its rightful rise and thereby continue its hegemony in the region. It argues that it is only responding in kind to the US threat in and from its vulnerable underbelly – the South China Sea. 

For China, the South China Sea is a “natural shield for its national security.” It hosts its vital sea lanes of communication that it believes the US could and would disrupt in a conflict Even more important, it provides relative “sanctuary” for its second-strike nuclear submarines that are its insurance against a first strike against it, something the US – unlike China – has not disavowed.  

The disputes between China and other claimants in the South China Sea have become pawns in the larger US-China “great game” for hegemony in Asia.

The US accuses China of “militarizing” the South China Sea and bullying its rivals. While China might present a problem for the US Navy in encounters close to the Chinese mainland, the US still maintains a military advantage over China there. It is the US military – not China’s – that currently dominates the South China Sea and is ramping up its presence.

According to US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the US is aggressively building “the capabilities that we need to deter China from committing to a major confrontation.”   Moreover it is the US that is bullying others – including China – with its threats of use of force that it disingenuously labels Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). 

The US claims that its stepped-up military presence is to prevent China from bullying its rival claimants. According to US Pacific Fleet commander Admiral John Aquilino, “The Chinese Communist Party must end its pattern of bullying Southeast Asians out of offshore oil, gas, and fisheries.” American forces will “stand with regional friends and partners to resist coercion….”  

But the US is not “backing” China’s rivals out of adherence to some high universal principle. In a Machiavellian move, the US is using these disputes as an excuse for increasing its military presence in the hope that it will encourage them to “stand up” to China and thus irrevocably draw some Southeast Asian states to its side.

Similarly the US has inserted itself into the China-ASEAN negotiations regarding a Code of Conduct (COC) for behavior in the South China Sea. It has done so in a manner that imposes its view of the “international order” and pits some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations against one another.

The US would probably rather see no COC than one not in its interest. This, and now the pandemic, are hindering agreement on a COC. 

The US justifies its FONOPs by implying that China is threatening commercial freedom of navigation upon which all nations depend for their economic survival. The US portrays itself as the defender of commercial freedom of navigation. But it knows that China has never threatened commercial navigation. It does object to US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes along its coasts.

That is the real reason for US concern with “freedom of navigation.” The US cynically conflates the two “freedoms” for its narrow military purposes. 

Given the growing US threat to its nuclear submarines, China is building up its submarine-detection capabilities on some of the features it occupies. Prominent China critic Gregory Poling of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that China’s installations could neutralize US ISR in the South China Sea and thus enhance the survivability of China’s nuclear submarines in the early stages of a conflict. They may even be able to detect and thus neutralize US submarines.   

Poling concludes that “US forces would have little choice but to concede the waters and airspace of the South China Sea to China in the opening stages of a conflict.” The implication is that it is indeed in the US strategic security interest to counter or even remove China’s military assets on these outposts.

Poling also thinks that China’s intention in building and “militarizing” features in the South China Sea is to intimidate other claimants to the point that they will lose confidence that the US can or has the will to protect their interests and thus “undermine America’s role as a regional security provider.” If he is right, then China is highly unlikely to give up these outposts in any compromise with its rival claimants, at least unless or until the US stands down from its constant threats.

Another major problem for any “compromise” between China and its rival claimants is that the very countries with which China should “compromise” – like Malaysia and the Philippines – have willingly allowed the US to use their territory for launching intelligence probes against it, including surveillance of its submarines. Singapore is also a temporary base for US ISR probes as well as littoral combat vessels that patrol the South China Sea and undertake FONOPs challenging China’s claims. 

Will they evict the US military in exchange for compromise? Will the US accept this or pressure them to keep “on side” – including veiled threats of regime change in those countries unfriendly to its strategic interests? 

Because of the increasingly critical role that China’s outposts play in the US-China strategic contest, Beijing will not surrender its territorial claims nor abandon its bases. However, the China-ASEAN-member disputes involve more than just claims to territory. Even if these claims could somehow be put aside – perhaps as the status quo – there remains China’s nine-dash-line historic claim versus its rivals’ claims to maritime zones authorized by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

But a major problem for “compromise” on this aspect is the new wave of nationalism in China. The Beijing leadership has drummed into its new generation that the South China Sea features and resources are part of the motherland that was stolen from it when it was weak by small ex-Western colonies – with Western collusion. The government cannot just abandon that narrative without losing its legitimacy.  

So China’s leadership is searching for a way to put its rival claimants sufficiently at ease while maintaining its legitimacy in the eyes of its populace. This brings up the questions of compromise with whom, on what, where? 

What it is trying to arrange with the Philippines is critical. Manila has demonstrated good faith by distancing itself from Washington politically and militarily. In return, China has proposed an agreement that would tacitly admit the validity of Philippine claims while sharing in the petroleum resources of the area.

China is gambling that these temporary adjustments will give hope that the sensitive nationalistic aspects of the dispute can be shelved. Such hope – coupled with its growing military and economic power and the pragmatic realization that its looming regional presence is long-term – will hinder oppositional unity, and make it more difficult for the US to manipulate these issues and its rivals. If this works for the Philippines, it could become a model for other claimants to follow with their own twists.

Another consideration is that to compromise China must be convinced that it would really change the problematique. Beijing fears that even if it “plays nice,” the US will not cease its attempts to manipulate the situation in the South China Sea to its advantage. To the contrary, the US would probably seize the opportunity of a relative stand-down by China to broaden and deepen its strategic inroads and advantage. 

To think such “magnanimity” on the part of China would advance Beijing’s interests in the face of a US policy of malevolent Machiavellian manipulation is wishful thinking. The solution to the South China Sea imbroglio lies with the US, not China. If it would cease manipulating the situation for its own ends, China could “lighten up” on its aggressiveness and military posturing, thus enhancing the climate for compromise. But the ball is in the US court – not China’s.

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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.