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Making sense of the known unknowns in the South China Sea

The US doesn’t have to be willing to blockade Scarborough Reef to stop China from building a military base there.

Photo: Flickr/National Museum of the US Navy
Photo: Flickr/National Museum of the US Navy

I'd like to thank Hugh White for his continued thoughtfulness and collegiality in our ongoing exchange on the South China Sea. I thought it might be interesting to pivot from debating strategic dynamics in the region to a dialogue about what our divergent assessments mean for the making of US policy.

I'll start by fully endorsing Hugh's point that US leaders, including the president, need to start leveling with the American people about the stakes in Asia and the China challenge therein. A year before returning to government, I wrote in Foreign Policy in 2014 that the Obama administration was:

…partially to blame for the shoddy public discourse on US Asia policy. The president still hasn't spoken to the American people about the importance of Asia, and the White House has been overly reliant on speeches and magazine articles rather than offering an official document on what the rebalancing policy actually entails.

Despite my continued protestations inside the White House Situation Room in subsequent years, this deficiency was never really addressed; strategies were kept classified, high-level speeches on Asia tended to occur only in Hawaii or the region, and, despite the president's advisors seeing the rebalance to Asia as a signature feature of Obama's foreign policy strategy and legacy, he never appeared in prime time to speak directly to America about the region; notably in sharp contrast to copious televised statements on Afghanistan and the Middle East. The best we got was a White House Fact Sheet in November 2015 on 'Advancing the Rebalance to Asia and the Pacific'. There have been exceptions to this strategic silence: Senator Cory Gardner recently delivered a thoughtful speech on Asia policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. Nevertheless, these public proclamations by our elected officials remain few and far between.

But what of the underlying areas of disagreement between me and Hugh? The central argument of his latest piece is that a more robust US policy in the South China Sea, along the lines that I proposed here in Foreign Affairs, would be unwise because Beijing would call Washington's bluff, after which the United States 'could avoid humiliation only by running a really grave danger of a major war'.

At least two features of this assessment warrant further scrutiny. First, clearly Hugh and I have differing perceptions of China's risk tolerance. Hugh thinks China is ready to wage war in its quest to dominate East Asia. I think China could be made more cautious in the face of stronger US resistance, as evidenced by its pattern of repeated capitulation in instances in which the United States has stood firm. But as interesting as these debates are (or not), neither of us, nor anyone reading this, nor Xi Jinping himself knows for sure the exact circumstances under which China would or would not use force against the United States in the South China Sea.

For some, that uncertainty has been an excuse for inaction: If we can't be sure of China's response to US counter-pressure, then it's safer to lean back than risk war. I've always found this conclusion premature. As I wrote in War on the Rocks in 2014:

…there's a big difference between determining that China is presently undeterred versus determining that it is patently undeterrable. Before definitively drawing the latter conclusion, the immediate task for US policymakers is to test the elasticity of Chinese decision-making.

I stand by that view, particularly given the fluid dynamics and prevailing uncertainties in the South China Sea. Even setting aside the bolder proposals I put forth in Foreign Affairs, we ought to be regularly experimenting with diplomatic, economic, and military policy innovations in the South China Sea, not deciding a priori that we're doomed to fail. The United States should be testing, probing, and seizing the initiative, rather than negotiating ourselves into a state of policy paralysis. And surely we can so without tripping into unintended conflict. If so, this will lead to better policy as we gain more clarity on the vital question of whether China is undeterred (the Ratner position) versus undeterrable (the White position).

Second, I'd like to pull the thread on Hugh's assessment that US resolve is inadequate, which is core to his argument. The 'known unknown' in this regard is whether this is an immutable condition predicated on structural asymmetries of power and interest, or rather something that could be remedied by a more competent, experienced, and focused US government. My suspicion is that Hugh would lean toward the former, whereas I the latter.

I agree with Hugh that Beijing has believed to date that it can achieve its hegemonic aims in the South China Sea at acceptable cost. That's been central to my argument, as well, in calling for a more robust US response to China's revisionism. But I also find it borderline tautological to assert that the United States can't convince Beijing of America's resolve because America hasn't demonstrated resolve; as if the Obama and Trump Administrations represent the limits of US policy in Asia.

At the risk of sending the reader into a counterfactual tailspin, let's imagine that Hillary Clinton is president, Jake Sullivan national security advisor, Michele Flournoy secretary of defense, Kurt Campbell deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage US ambassador to Japan, Mike Green assistant secretary of state for East Asia, and so forth. Imagine that this administration is firing on all cylinders on Asia, implementing for real what the Obama administration set out to do in reconfiguring the United States toward the region. Would that United States, using the full toolkit of American foreign policy, be capable of setting boundaries of behavior that China might be less willing to cross, including in the South China Sea? Folks probably won't be surprised to learn that my answer would be yes.

So while I'm sympathetic intellectually to what I would anticipate as Hugh's retort—that no matter what, it ultimately boils down to a question of willingness to go to war - that strikes me as an overly narrow view of power, influence, and interest in 21st century Asia. There are plenty of reasons—some already extent, others that the United States and its partners could devise and reinforce - for why China shouldn't want to fight the United States or exact violence against smaller regional countries, even if leaders in Beijing were fairly confident in their predominance of political will and local military power.

The task for US policymakers is therefore to devise a set of consequences and incentives for China (at acceptable cost to the United States) such that tactical Chinese military success in the South China Sea would be a Pyrrhic victory for China's economy, security, and standing in the world. That's an entirely different exercise than solving for the problem Hugh highlights of a potential asymmetry of willingness to go to war over who owns the Spratly islands. To be more concrete, you don't have to be willing to blockade Scarborough Reef to stop China from building a military base there.

Hugh may argue that the game is up, and there are simply no viable options aside from direct military confrontation by the United States. I, on the other hand, am still confident that under the right circumstances the United States could devise a sophisticated and multifaceted deterrent that is credible in Beijing's eyes. Am I 100% sure it would work? Of course not. But in the final analysis, given the uncertainties underscored by my and Hugh's rather different assessments, I'll say this: I think it's worth trying, which is something the United States has not done to date.

But enough about our differences. Let me conclude with a point of likely concurrence: Hugh and I can probably agree that the current manifestation of the Trump Administration appears nowhere near capable of designing or implementing the kind of comprehensive deterrence strategy I might envision, meaning this is a debate about what comes after Trump (or at least this version of Trump), rather than what the US government can do today.

Read Hugh White's response to this article here.

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