If the Biden administration seeks to ease tensions stoked with China during Donald Trump's administration, a major rethink is required. Image: iStock

Singapore-based Channel News Asia (CNA) recently published a commentary by Koh Swee Lean Collin recommending policy approaches for the incoming US administration of Joe Biden vis-à-vis China and the South China Sea. The piece explores the meaning of “militarization” and criticizes China for “militarizing” the features it occupies and for using them for power projection and coercion.

It then urges the incoming Biden administration to keep up the Donald Trump administration’s pressure on China there.

I would like to offer another perspective.

The commentary predicates its analysis on what Chinese President Xi Jinping supposedly said to then-US president Barack Obama regarding militarization of the South China Sea. It then asks rhetorically, “Can this issue finally be put to rest with the incoming Biden administration?”

The answer is “no” – not if it follows this commentary’s advice. This “pledge” has been misunderstood. Xi did not say that China would “not militarize the islands.” According to the translation, he said “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of the features. The key words are “intend” and “militarization.”

First of all, China may well have not intended to “militarize” the features. But when Vietnam and the US stepped up their “militarization” in the South China Sea, it felt a need to respond to what it perceived as threats to its forces and installations.

To China, Vietnam’s deployment of long-range mobile rocket launchers on five features within striking distance of China’s occupied features and stepped-up US freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) close to them constituted threats.

Second, as Koh’s commentary implies, “militarization” is in the eye of the beholder. Indeed, as it points out, China does not consider defensive installations “militarization.” Moreover, Beijing has repeatedly warned that if the US persisted with its provocative intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (IRS) probes and FONOPs in its near waters and occupied features, China would defend itself.

In a 2016 teleconference with US chief of naval operations John Richardson, Chinese naval commander Wu Shengli said, “We won’t not set up defenses. How many defenses completely depend on the level of threat we face.”

Self-defense is every nation’s right. The US itself frequently claims that it is defending its national-security interests by its forward military deployments, its ISR probes, its FONOPs, and its beefed-up naval presence in the South China Sea. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Third, there is deep disagreement as to the definition of “militarization” and who is doing it.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “to give a military character to or to adapt for military use.” Under this definition all the occupiers of Spratly features – Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – “militarized” them years ago. Indeed, all have stationed military personnel there and built airstrips and harbors that can and have accommodated military aircraft and vessels. China was a late comer in this regard.

So what specifically does the US mean by “militarization” when it accuses China of it and demands that it refrain from doing so? Is “occasional” military use all right? But what is “occasional” military use? What if that military use is for “humanitarian” purposes such as search and rescue or disaster response?

Does the “intent” of the use matter – and who decides? How about if it is “for defensive purposes only”?

As Koh’s commentary acknowledges, “This formulation is problematic: How does one determine ‘weapons of offensive nature’ when most armaments fulfill both defensive and offensive requirements? It really depends greatly on how the user chooses to employ the weapon.”

But what about the bigger picture regarding the meaning of “militarization”? The US – unlike China – already has military “places” in Southeast Asia – in its military allies the Philippines and Thailand – and more recently in Malaysia and Singapore for its Poseidon sub-hunters and electronic-warfare platforms targeting China.

With the pivot, the US has clearly increased its military presence in the region. Indeed in China’s view, the US has militarized the situation by provocatively “projecting power.”

Let’s face it: Both China and the US are “militarizing” the South China Sea, at least in each others’ eyes. Other claimants have also done so. Some have collaborated with the US effort as well, and other outside powers like Japan are contemplating doing so.

After dwelling on the diverse definitions of “militarization,” the CNA commentary advocates more of the same policy for the US, including FONOPs. But they are unnecessary, ineffective and counterproductive. Continuing the FONOPs could preclude any possible new start – an agreement to disagree. China may be signaling that it is ready for a bargain.

One version would see China refraining from further occupation, construction and “militarization” on its claimed features. It would also not undertake any provocative action like occupying and building on Scarborough Shoal, harassing other claimants in their claimed exclusive economic zones and declaring an air defense identification zone over disputed waters.

The US, in turn, would decrease or cease altogether its provocative freedom-of-navigation operations there and its “close-in” ISR probes. Rolling back the Trump administration’s increased frequency of confrontational FONOPs and close-in intelligence probes in, over and under China’s waters would send a positive signal.

The goal of achieving US interests in Asia will not change – but the methods can. Biden has said the US must lead by example. It should stop the browbeating and tit-for-tat that characterized the Trump administration. Second, it should reach some sort of understanding with China that reduces tension in the region and the South China Sea.

Koh’s commentary also suggests continued “blacklisting of Chinese entities involved in the South China Sea buildup.” But this can also be counterproductive and escalatory.

The US sanctioned China’s main offshore oil exploration company CNOOC apparently for exploring and drilling in disputed areas of the South China Sea. But ExxonMobil, the United States’ largest oil company, has undertaken drilling in areas claimed by both Vietnam and China, specifically in Vietnam Blocks 118 and 119.

China previously threatened retaliation against it for doing what the US now alleges the China National Offshore Oil Corporation is doing. Indeed, in 2008, China warned ExxonMobil against proceeding there, suggesting that its business in China could be at risk.

Regarding the US-China contest for domination of the South China Sea and the region, perhaps American policymakers should listen more to Singapore’s leaders, as they seem to have a more open-minded and balanced perspective.

Regarding US FONOPs, in a veiled criticism of the US use of threat of force to uphold “freedom of navigation,” Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said, “Some of the incidents are from assertion of principles, but we recognize that the price of any physical incident is one that is too high and unnecessary to either assert or prove your position.”

At the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong challenged both the US and China to do better, calling on the US to make the “difficult” but necessary adjustments to China’s rise and aspirations, and exhorting China to “convince other countries through its actions that it does not take a transactional and mercantilist approach.”

As Ng Eng Hen put it, “the challenge for the US and China is to offer acceptance of their dominance beyond military might. If their policies are lopsided against other countries’ interests, these countries will seek other partners.”

The point is that more of the same from the US will beget more of the same from China in a dangerous tit-for-tat that threatens the peace and stability of the region and everyone in it.

It is time to try something new.

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.