Chinese Coast Guard vessels at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters / Erik De Castro
Chinese coast guard vessels at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters / Erik De Castro

Former Australian prime minister and China expert Kevin Rudd has published a penetrating and prescient analysis of the history and future of US-China relations as an excerpt of his forthcoming book.  

Rudd points out that a “chasm of distrust” between the two countries has been widening for some time.

The US no longer believes that China will rise peacefully or that its capitalism with Chinese characteristics will moderate its domestic political system or its growing international ambitions. Indeed, he says the US national-security establishment believes that China is intent on changing the international order in its favor to the disadvantage of the US – its major creator, defender and beneficiary. 

Rudd says the US has focused on China’s actions in the South China Sea as evidence.

He says China thinks the US is trying to constrain and contain it and thus deprive it of its rightful destiny as a global power. He says China sees the US challenges to its claims in the South China Sea as evidence of this strategy.

Regarding China’s modernization and expansion of its military, he thinks the main motive is to ”prepare for future Taiwan contingencies.” But the US sees it as a ”much broader challenge to US military predominance across the wider Indo-Pacific region and beyond.”

A major US concern is the advance of China’s naval assets and capabilities, in particular its growing submarine capabilities, and the development of a “blue-water fleet.”

Rudd proposes that military conflict between China and the US can be avoided by their agreement on a strategic framework that would, among others, set out ”principles and procedures for navigating each other’s strategic red lines.” 

Such a framework should begin with their interactions in the South China Sea. It is at the crux of the US-China strategic contest for regional dominance and is also a nexus of their fundamental differences regarding the “international order.” 

Competing ‘red lines’

Here, China and the US have juxtaposed military strategies. China is developing what the US calls an anti-access/area-denial strategy that is designed to control China’s “near seas” and prevent access to them by the US in the event of a conflict.

To counter this strategy, the US intends to cripple China’s command, control, communications, computer and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems (C4 ISR). This means that C4 ISR is the “tip of the spear” for both, and both are trying to dominate this sphere over, on and under China’s near seas. 

These are dangerous dynamics and there are several obvious “red lines.”  

For China, the South China Sea provides relative “sanctuary” for its retaliatory-strike nuclear submarines based at Hainan. These submarines are its insurance against a first nuclear strike – something the US, unlike China, has not disavowed. Thus the possibility of a first strike is an existential threat to China and an advantage for the US in military strategy – and coercion.

The US uses intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance  (ISR) probes in the South China Sea to detect, track and, in wartime, target China’s nuclear submarines. China’s response has been to develop on some of the land features it occupies in the sea the capability to neutralize US ISR in time of conflict.

Thus for China, its installations are important to its continued existence, and it is not about to compromise this defense unilaterally. But the US believes it needs to continue its intelligence probes because they give it an overall strategic nuclear advantage over China. 

As legal cover for its ISR probes, US lawfare conflates commercial freedom of navigation with freedom of navigation for warships and warplanes to spy on and threaten China’s defenses.

So for China, any US move significantly to diminish these defense capabilities would likely be a “red line.” But for the US, a corresponding “red line” might well be any serious attempt to disrupt its ISR probes.

Other red lines for the US would include blatant violations of commercial freedom of navigation or an attack on the forces or territory of its ally the Philippines. This is primarily because a non-response by the US would damage its credibility as the “leader” and protector of the “international order” and the region. 

Former US assistant secretary of state David Stilwell has declared that any attempt by China to occupy and build on the Philippines-claimed Scarborough Shoal is also a “red line.” 

China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a large swath of disputed waters in the South China Sea might not in itself be crossing a “red line,” although an attempt to enforce it would likely be so.

For China, whose body politic has become increasingly nationalistic, any national loss of face and resultant loss of respect for leadership could trigger a “crossed red line” response.  This might include a US military confrontation that forces a public climbdown by China’s PLA Navy.

There are undoubtedly other red lines best known to their strategic and intelligence communities. 

New bilateral convention needed

Such a strategic framework could include an Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA). 

In the late 1960s there were several dangerous incidents between the US and Soviet navies that involved close encounters of warplanes, ships bumping one another, and threatening maneuvers by both. The US proposed and the Soviet Union agreed to negotiate an INCSEA, which is still in effect.  

Specifically, the agreement provides for steps for warships to avoid collision; prohibitions on interfering with each other’s “formations” and simulating attacks the other party’s warships; requiring surveillance ships to maintain a safe distance from the object of investigation so as to avoid “embarrassing or endangering the ships under surveillance”; informing vessels when submarines are exercising near them; and other such measures designed to avoid accidental clashes.

Today, similar incidents between the United States’ and China’s navies are increasing in the South China Sea, and it is time for them to negotiate an INCSEA. 

This is not that farfetched. China and the US already claim to be adherents to the non-binding Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). This is an agreement reached at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium to reduce the chance of an incident at sea and, in the event that one occurs, to prevent it from escalating.

However, it has been ineffective in curbing incidents between the US and China, mainly because they do not stem from “unplanned” encounters. A higher-level bilateral agreement like an INCSEA is needed.

China and the US could also make a partial – and probably temporary – grand bargain. In such a bargain, China would refrain from further occupation, construction and “militarization” on its claimed land features. It would also not undertake any extremely provocative action like occupying and building on Scarborough Shoal, harassing other claimants in the disputed area and declaring an ADIZ over the Spratlys. 

The US, in turn, would decrease or cease altogether its provocative freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) there and its “close-in” intelligence probes. It would also refrain from belligerent threats and actions. 

China has already proposed “a new model of great power relations” implying equality and shared responsibility in world affairs. To avoid military conflict, the US must accommodate to some extent China’s legitimate interests and aspirations by sharing power. When, on what issues, how, and how much are to be negotiated. 

Mark Valencia

Mark Valencia is a non-resident senior research fellow at the Huayang Institute for Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance.