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Is Now the Time to Tug on the Dragon’s Tail?

By James Maclaren, Jul 24 2020 08:11AM

THE U.S. AND CHINA continue to wrestle over the South China Sea. Should both sides step back and take stock.

In early May the U.S. announced that all of its forward-deployed submarines based in Guam were conducting contingency response operations in the Philippines Sea. This unusual announcement on the normally highly secret operations of submarines was the latest in a series of maritime and air deployments across the Asia-Pacific region that are designed to challenge China’s growing maritime capability.

As part of this stand-off the U.S. and China continue to glare at one other across the South China Sea. Each remote territorial consolidation by China in support of its nine-dash line territorial claim is met with an assertion of U.S military power and while action-counter action ebbs and flows the regional temperature gently heats. Meanwhile China’s regional neighbors and rivals watch nervously, mindful of their own claims and conscious of the realities of their various dependencies on Beijing and Washington.

China views the South China Sea as a natural shield for its national security. It contains vital sea lanes of communication that it believes are vulnerable to U.S disruption during a conflict. Importantly, it provides relative sanctuary for its nuclear submarines to launch a retaliatory second-strike to meet what it believes is a credible Washington option of striking first.

The U.S. accuses China of militarizing the South China Sea to gain regional hegemony. It justifies its own military activity as developing deterrent capability, which will prevent China from bullying its rival claimants to the region’s natural resources of offshore oil and gas.

In regional military terms, the US still maintains an advantage over China and Washington seems determined to ramp up its presence to preserve and extend this this situation. The U.S. justifies its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) by suggesting that China is threatening commercial navigation upon which all nations depend for their economic survival. There is little evidence that China is concerned about inhibiting navigation and the U.S. muscular presence is more about persuading other regional nations to support its actions and develop their own capabilities to stand up to China. Against this strategic wrestle the various disputes between China and other territorial claimants in the South China Sea act as pawns in a greater U.S.-China rivalry.

U.S. maritime and air operations close to its areas of claim in the South China Sea infuriates Beijing, resulting in further Chinese muscle movements that ripple out across the region. China is unwilling to accept constant US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes along its coasts without recourse to exercising its own deterrent strategy, part of which is to intimidate those nations with competing South China Sea claims to the point that they lose confidence in the U.S, undermining America’s role as a regional security provider. Is this possible?

The current wave of increased nationalism in Beijing sees a new generation firmly attached to the idea that the resources of the South China Sea are part of the motherland that was stolen by the colonies of powerful Western powers when it was weak. The government is unable to abandon that narrative without losing its legitimacy a position its neighbors are aware of and act accordingly. Despite continued cooperation, the Philippines has distanced itself politically and militarily from the U.S. while Malaysia carefully walks the fence, both countries careful not to rile China too greatly.

As the region begins to contemplate the economic rubble that the Coronavirus pandemic will leave, China is likely to remain the more determined in its position. The priority amongst its rivals for the immediate future will be the recovery of their economies leaving little appetite for regional confrontation. In those circumstances the ideology of sovereignty and the need for economic expediency will, at least for a time, prevail over wider geopolitical alliances.

Unilateral action by the U.S. will not prevent China exploiting the emerging world situation for its own advantage. Blunt military confrontation simply risks the unpicking of America’s regional relationships by a China which will deploy carrot and stick amongst its neighbors in equal measure, taking advantage of U.S. preoccupation elsewhere.

Compromise offers the only way forward and the U.S. should tread softly, denying China pretext for further military expansion. At the same time, it needs to work at ‘polishing’ its regional relationships reaching out to countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam rather than driving the pace and controlling the China response agenda. This involves working with their indigenous defense programs and standing back from their dialogue with Beijing on the sensitive nationalistic aspects surrounding their relationships. It should allow the region to pursue its own route while helping to create a sensible military balance that supports regional stability. The basin nations are pragmatic; they understand they have to deal with China’s growing military and economic power and that its looming regional presence is long-term. They can see a not-too-distant future when the U.S. under peer parity pressure from China can no longer manipulate the region’s issues and the national actions of allies to follow its own policy.

At the same time China must be convinced that it is in its interests to ‘play nice,’ and be sure the U.S. will cease its attempts to manipulate the situation in the South China Sea to its advantage. Reaching this stage requires Washington to exercise restraint. The world has enough on its plate without allowing a serious regional stand-off to escalate beyond control.

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