US Navy FONOPs (freedom of navigation operations) in the South China Sea irritate Beijing, with little purpose. Photo: US Naval Institute

It’s that time again when US administrations change and a plethora of foreign-policy pundits post proposals and predictions for the incoming administration. This time around a prominent topic is US-China policy and – in particular – US policy regarding the burgeoning US-China confrontation in the South China Sea.

Here is a spectrum of scenarios for the South China Sea in 2021, ranging from the worst to the best – and including the most likely.

The worst but least likely scenario is war. China and the US are locked in a seminal long-term struggle for dominance in Asia and the South China Sea. Their militaries are engaging in nearly continuous and sometimes competing shows of force there and some say these disputes will soon beget war.

Broad conflict is certainly possible. Indeed, there are many scenarios that could beckon the apocalyptic rider of the red horse. According to David Gompert, former deputy director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, “China could try to intimidate its neighbors below the threshold of US intervention and misjudge where that threshold is, or underestimate US willingness” to respond to what it perceives as a threat to its assets.

China already poses a formidable challenge in a conflict in its near waters in the South China Sea. It is making rapid progress in the application of military technology there. The US still has the technological edge but the “closer the Chinese come to thinking they can match the US, the closer we get to confrontation,” says Bill Hayton, associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House and author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia.

Meanwhile, the US continues to push the limits of China’s tolerance with freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) that publicly challenge China’s “illegitimate” maritime claims. Moreover, despite China’s strong objections, it continues its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes over, in and under China’s near-shore waters.

Such sorties and China’s kinetic responses thereto have resulted in a series of international incidents. Continuing them invites miscalculations and accidents. But according to the US Navy’s new strategy, its ships will “accept calculated tactical risks and adopt a more assertive posture in our day-to-day operations.”

But confrontation and broader conflict are unlikely in the short term – provided cool and predictable heads on both sides prevail. Indeed, countries often find ways to avoid or postpone the worst scenario.

At present, China is simply not yet ready for a broad armed conflict with the US – and its allies – and the US is distracted by domestic difficulties and other foreign hot spots. Moreover, the two seem to have developed a modus operandi that has so far avoided the worst scenarios. But the “leaking status quo” is unstable and a purposeful or accidental breach of “red lines” could indeed spiral into conflict.

A slightly better scenario is one in which the two avoid confrontation and conflict in the South China Sea but continue their current policies and tactics there. In the short term this is the most likely scenario – more of the same: continuing disagreement, belligerent rhetoric and strategic political and military maneuvering.

In one version of this scenario, the general political climate in the region continues to deteriorate and is accompanied by setbacks:

  • The Philippines-China oil and gas accommodation for disputed areas collapses and the Philippines internationalizes its arbitration victory.
  • Vietnam files a complaint against China under the dispute settlement clauses of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and their relations further deteriorate accompanied by clashes between their maritime militias.
  • The China-ASEAN Code of Conduct negotiations break down because of US interference and China’s stubbornness.
  • The US seizes these “opportunities” to back ASEAN countries in their claims, putting ever more pressure on China to yield ground or push back.
  • China-US military communications break down and both use their actions to signal each other of their intention to protect their perceived interests.

But there are also better scenarios.

US secretary of state-designate Anthony Blinken has predicted that a Biden administration would “re-engage China and work with China” from a position of strength. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has argued for “managed co-existence with China.”

If these sentiments inform policy, this open-minded approach could produce a scenario that enhances peace and stability. The two protagonists heed the escalating chorus of concern from US allies and friends. They revive and improve their military-to-military communications such that neither side is surprised or “threatened” to the point that conflict occurs.

These small but significant steps over time lead to a larger tactical bargain. China refrains from further occupation, construction and “militarization” on its claimed features. It undertakes not to take any provocative action such as occupying and building on Scarborough Shoal, harassing other claimants in the area and declaring an air defense identification zone over the Spratlys.

It also agrees to a Code of Conduct for activities in the South China Sea – albeit one that is not as robust or as binding as many would have liked.

For its part, the US decreases or ceases altogether its provocative FONOPs there and its “close-in” ISR probes.

This provides the diplomatic space necessary to tackle the more strategic issues. The US and China gradually negotiate a tacit power-sharing agreement in the region, and under the successful Philippines-China model of sharing, China shares the South China Sea’s resources and their management with its rival claimants.

And they all live happily ever after. Not.

But small steps in this direction might help stabilize the situation.

The Biden administration will be faced with both opportunities and challenges regarding China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the South China Sea.

The US goals in the region – hegemony and maintenance of its version of the “international order” – will not change. But the US may change its approach.

Indeed, an important development in this struggle will be the Biden administration’s approach to the most affected Southeast Asian countries. Most of these countries like and admire much about the US political, social and economic systems. They do want to be friends. But its recent style and demands have made them very wary that they are being used by the US as pawns in a great game with China.

They want respect for their interests. While many may be more ideologically aligned with the US, they have economic and longer term geopolitical reasons that make them reluctant to confront China – even with US backing. Rather than choose between China and the US, they want to balance and benefit from both.

Moreover, they do not want to lose their collective “centrality” in managing regional security and are afraid that both the US version of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and the Quad – an incipient anti-China bloc – would undermine that.

In a better scenario, under Biden, the US stops browbeating and trying to coerce these nations to choose between it and China. Biden meets with ASEAN leaders early on, giving them “face,” listens carefully and responds positively where he can, refocusing US policies and assistance on development and trade – with no strings attached. This demonstrates the respect that was sorely lacking under President Donald Trump’s administration.

As an adjunct, the US reaches some sort of an understanding with China that reduces tension in the region and the South China Sea. This results in a cutting back of the Trump administration’s increased frequency of confrontational FONOPs and close-in ISR probes in, over and under China’s waters.

China reduces its aggressive rhetoric and actions against its rival claimants. This reinvigorates ASEAN members’ faith in America to do the “right thing” in the “right way,” and China, the US and Southeast Asia move forward from there.

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.