The USS Nimitz and USS Roosevelt in a dual-carrier operation. The US military must resist Chinese efforts to push it out of the Western Pacific. File photo: Handout / US Navy

Analysts have recently been spouting a lot of malarkey about the US-China contest in the South China Sea. It is time to set the record straight.

Perhaps the most provocative remark was made by Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary in the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “Watch what you wish for, including a Biden victory.”

I admire Kausikan’s courageous free thinking and I have agreed with many of his contrarian positions. But I do take issue with the position expounded in his November 3 Nikkei piece cited above.

Kausikan praises US President Donald Trump for understanding power and its use and asserts that his “bombing of Syria did much to restore the credibility of American power.” He holds that “hard power needs to be balanced by hard power; the balance stiffened by credible nuclear deterrence to keep other nuclear powers in check.”

He cites as an example of the decline of US credibility former president Barack Obama’s “failure” to follow through regarding his response to a reporter’s question that a chemical attack by the Syrian government on its citizens would be a “red line for us.” He subsequently gave a speech urging action against Syria. But he qualified that by saying Congress should authorize any military action.

There was little support either in Congress or among the public for such action and thus it did not occur. This is how US democracy is supposed to work in such situations, not by unilateral presidential use of the military to back up an off-the-cuff remark.

As another example of Obama’s failure to understand and use American power appropriately, Kausikan alleges that “Obama did nothing … as Pyongyang pushed forward with its nuclear program.” Apparently he thinks the US should attack North Korea and risk the almost certain widespread devastation of Seoul and the deaths or injuries of many of its inhabitants, as well as a nuclear response by North Korea – perhaps targeting Japan.

Kausikan asks, “If you are reluctant to use conventional arms, how can you credibly threaten to use nuclear weapons?” He says, “You need muscle and the will to use it to make them respect your values and rules.” He seems to be advocating that the US use its military power to enforce its political position unilaterally regardless of international law or collateral civilian damages. Is this something to be promoted, or even passively accepted?

Kausikan seems to be channeling the misanthropic Hobbesian assumption and argument that military power is the be all and end all of international relations. For Hobbes, the “war of every man against every man” is a natural constant and violent condition in which each individual has a natural right to everything, regardless of the interests of others. All other aspects are secondary.

This view as applied to international relations accepts war as natural and inevitable. It is the modern version of “might makes right,” the prevalent rationale of the great powers during the colonial era.

As a corollary of this theory, Kausikan states that “freedom of navigation can be exercised as a right, and not by China’s leave and favor.” In other words, he supports unilateral US interpretation of provisions in a treaty it has not even ratified and its enforcement with gunboats.

This “might makes right” philosophy does not benefit small countries such as Singapore, which Kausikan represented well for many years. Instead it asymmetrically benefits the great powers – including China’s actions in the South China Sea. Is that what Kausikan really means and wants? Or as US President-elect Joseph Biden said in his victory speech, great powers like the US “need to lead not by the example of power but by the power of example.”

Another bunch of malarkey was offered by former Philippines Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio in an opinion piece full of fallacious statements. Carpio says China’s position is that “in its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, the FONOPs (freedom of navigation operations) of the US and its allies cannot include naval drills.”

He reasons that if the Philippines’ arbitration victory denying China’s historic claim in the South China Sea is accepted by China, many of the disputes will have been resolved and the US and its allies can conduct FONOPs, including naval drills, in these countries’ EEZs. “There being a recognition of FONOPs in the EEZs of ASEAN coastal states, there will no longer be a need for the US and its allies to conduct frequent FONOPs in these EEZs.”

This is nonsensical gibberish. The US does not conduct FONOPs to challenge China’s nine-dash-line historic claim. Its FONOPs target China’s claimed closing lines around the Paracels; its prior-permission regime for innocent passage of foreign warships in its territorial seas; and its territorial claims to features that were originally below high tide before being artificially enhanced.

China has never challenged normal transit of US naval vessels or even naval exercises in its EEZ that pay due regard to its laws and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as the latter requires. Nor has it challenged freedom of commercial navigation in its EEZ. It does oppose military activities or any activities that violate its laws and its interpretation of UNCLOS – that treaty that China has ratified and the US has not but unilaterally interprets and enforces to its benefit.

Regarding the Philippines-China dispute over maritime space, Greg Poling of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies says “China will likely block new exploration in contested waters” like Reed Bank. It is true that China has done this before, but the present situation is very different.

China and the Philippines are negotiating cooperative agreements for petroleum exploration and appear to have reached one regarding a commercial joint venture in undisputed Philippine waters. It is highly unlikely that the Philippines would allow exploration on Reed Bank to proceed if it thought China would object and scotch existing commercial cooperation.

In fact regarding Reed Bank, Philippine Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi said, “If they (Philippine-majority-owned Forum Energy) can’t do it and they need a partner, they have to partner with China.” That sounds to me like some sort of understanding has been reached that would prevent China’s interference with Forum Energy contractors as they proceed to explore Reed Bank.

Then there have been suggestions that the South China Sea and the Arctic Ocean situations are similar. There are similarities, but the differences are more profound. There is no “historic” claim to most of the Arctic nor an arbitration decision that settles most disputes. There are indigenous peoples living in the Arctic Ocean, but not in the South China Sea. The Arctic is not a site of major trade routes – at least not yet.

But there is one interesting link between China’s position on freedom of navigation in the two semi-enclosed seas. China insists on it through the Northwest Passage – a potential alternative trade route between it and Europe. But Russia insists that parts of the route fall within its internal waters and that transits must have its permission.

This position is based on geography and history that are somewhat analogous to China’s historic nine-dash-line claim in the South China Sea. As such, the link may ensure that China will not use its historic claim to constrain commercial freedom of navigation. In fact it is probably insurance that it will not do so. Otherwise its hypocrisy will be plain for all to see.

As the South China Sea situation approaches the boil, fallacies are flying fast and furious. Analysts and policymakers must be careful to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Mark J Valencia is adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China.

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