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Let’s be clear: China would call America’s bluff in the South China Sea

Beijing is not just trying to take control of an important body of water. It is trying to take control of East Asia and hopes to use the South China Sea dispute to do that.

The USS Carl Vinson in a vertical replenishment with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 4 and the USNS Charles Drew (Photo: US Dept of Defense)
The USS Carl Vinson in a vertical replenishment with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 4 and the USNS Charles Drew (Photo: US Dept of Defense)

It seems to be widely agreed that Washington’s current policy of well-worn talking points and low-key FONOPS in the South China Sea [SCS] isn’t working. Ely Ratner and I have been debating how to do better. Ely has proposed a more robust approach. He suggests that Washington could deter China from further provocations by warning that it would respond by encouraging and supporting the other claimants among China’s neighbours to develop, fortify and if necessary defend the islands and features which they occupy.

I have argued that this would not work, because Beijing is unlikely to believe that its smaller neighbours would risk provoking it in that way, nor that America would really support them if they did. Beijing would therefore view America’s warning as a bluff, and would be seriously tempted to call it, which would leave Washington with a choice between confrontation and probable conflict, or back-down and humiliation.

Ely has responded with two cogent points that go to the heart of the SCS issue, and of the much wider and more momentous questions of regional order which underlie it.  First, he argues that China’s neighbours would be willing to stand up to China if America helps to reduce their economic dependence on China. And second, he argues that America can easily convince China not to test its resolve by calling its bluff.

But I remain unconvinced. First, Ely’s argument that America can encourage other Asian countries to stand up to China in the SCS by offering them alternative economic opportunities via a revived TPP or something like it underestimates the depth and strength of China’s economic position in Asia, and overstates the power of US economic statecraft.

Neither the TPP nor anything like it could ever offer China’s neighbours economic opportunities comparable to those provided by China’s still-rapid economic growth and the huge initiatives like BRI and AIIB that promise them a share in it. The reality is that whatever Washington does, China is going to be seen by all its East Asian neighbours as the principal driver of their economic prospects. And Beijing knows that. Any US policy towards China which wishes that away will fail.  

Second, Ely’s confidence that China wouldn’t test US resolve overlooks the way US policy in Asia over recent years has emboldened Beijing. Certainly the Chinese do not want a war with America, but their recent conduct suggests they are increasingly confident that they do not need to fear one, because America can be relied upon to back off first from any confrontation.

As long as China believes this, then it is very likely that they would try to call the bluff if Washington tried to implement Ely’s proposals. And why wouldn’t they believe it? Ely himself does not envisage that his proposal would include clear US commitments to defend other claimants’ SCS possessions from any Chinese military response.

He quite fairly chastises me for wrongly assuming that it did, but I think my assumption was understandable. If America didn’t make such a commitment, how could his proposal possibly work? Why would the other claimants risk provoking China, and why would China refrain from hitting back?

This brings us to the heart of America’s policy problem in the SCS. To understand that problem we have to be clear about nature of the contest there. Beijing is not just trying to take control of an important body of water. It is trying to take control of East Asia. It hopes to use the SCS dispute to do that by demonstrating there that America is no longer willing to risk a military confrontation with China to sustain its own leading position in the Asian strategic order, and thereby concede that leadership to China.

It has done that with a series of overt military moves which directly challenge the interests of US friends and allies, to which Washington has made no effective response. So far that has worked very well for Beijing, and that has reinforced their confidence in America’s loss of resolve.

And that in turn has increased the risk that Beijing would respond to any more robust US policy – like the one Ely proposes - by pushing back rather than backing down.  And that in turn increases the risk that a policy like Ely’s would lead straight to a confrontation in which Washington could avoid humiliation only by running a really grave danger of a major war.
This does not mean that America has no alternative but to acquiesce in China’s take-over. But it means that the effective reassertion of America’s strategic role in Asia requires a clear reaffirmation of America’s willingness to use force to defend it. And that is a process which must happen at home in America. Ely and I agree about the need for this, but we differ over what must come first.

I think this is the essential first step.  Nothing Washington can do in Asia will convince Beijing – or others – that America is really serious about preserving its leadership, or indeed any significant strategic role in Asia, unless American political leaders first clearly articulate to Americans at home why that is necessary in America’s interests, and why America should be willing if necessary to fight a war with China to do so.  

That may sound melodramatic, but it simply reflects the harsh logic of the kind of power politics that is now underway in Asia today as the regional order adjusts to the new distribution of wealth and power. The roles of the major powers in Asia in future will be determined by the issues that they can convince one another they are willing to go to war with one another over. That is how power politics works.   

If US leaders cannot convince Americans that its leading role in Asia is worth going to war with China to defend, then they cannot convince the Chinese. And if they cannot convince the Chinese, then the Chinese will not be deterred from the assertive behaviour which is so effectively undermining US leadership in Asia today.           

And of course there is no chance of this happening under Donald Trump. That must weigh in the strategic calculations being made in every capital in Asia today.

Read Ely Ratner's response to this article here.

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