The South China Sea’s Georgia Scenario

The U.S. can't risk overplaying its hand in China's disputes with its neighbors.


When Cui Tiankai, China’s vice foreign minister, warned U.S. officials in Honolulu on June 22 that "individual countries [in Southeast Asia] are playing with fire" and that he hoped the fire "doesn’t reach the United States," it was a major departure from the customary rhetoric of summitry. China’s message: Do not intervene in the Spratly Island dispute of the South China Sea, where five other claimants are jostling with Beijing for the rights to exploit the potentially rich, undersea energy deposits of the area.

In this atmosphere, the China-Vietnam relationship, which has been on a generally positive course since 1990, has suddenly veered into a dangerous crisis. Vietnam has conducted live-fire drills as an apparent warning to Beijing, and U.S. officials have chimed in with "increasing concerns" and have also moved to strengthen the traditionally close ties with the Philippines, one of the claimants in this maritime territorial dispute. At a meeting with Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen in Beijing on July 11, Chinese Army Chief Chen Bingde described U.S. joint exercises with Vietnam and the Philippines as "extremely inappropriate". With three wars now under way in the Middle East, U.S. leaders would do well to reflect on how "smart power" rather than military brinkmanship can point the way out of the present crisis and toward a more stable and peaceful Asia-Pacific region.

For much of the last decade, the South China Sea had actually been relatively quiet thanks to a 2002 agreement between Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on a "code of conduct" for the South China Sea. The agreement helped mitigate tensions that had built up after naval skirmishes in 1988 and by further aggressive jockeying in the 1990s. Scholar Joshua Kurlantzick and others had actually described China’s approach in Southeast Asia over the past decade as a "charm offensive," the centerpiece of which was a China-ASEAN free trade agreement that may have helped cushion the region from the worst of the recent global recession.

However, the deployment of Chinese nuclear submarines and other advanced warships to a new and sprawling base at Hainan Island on the South China Sea had raised eyebrows around the region during the last decade. Major tensions began to flare in the spring of 2009, when a clutch of Chinese ships harassed a U.S. surveillance vessel operating in international waters south of Hainan Island. Such Cold War-type surveillance operations are still routinely conducted by the U.S. armed forces all along China’s coast (but outside the 12-mile territorial limit) — a practice that Chinese military leaders consider to be gravely threatening and that they now identify as a major barrier to U.S.-China military cooperation. Dangerous interactions between U.S. and Chinese aircraft and vessels have become the norm, and one life has already been lost, in the April 2001 surveillance-plane incident, which also took place close to Hainan Island in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, local states, such as Vietnam, have been vigorously pursuing energy exploration in areas that are close to or within China’s vast claim line that encompasses virtually the entire area of the South China Sea. When Hanoi announced in 2009 that it intended to spend significant funds to purchase six submarines from Russia, it became amply evident that the regional arms race, already simmering for some years, was heating up in earnest.

Last year, tensions reached a boiling point. U.S. officials were apparently disturbed when senior Chinese officials referred to the South China Sea as a "core interest" in March. This was viewed as the latest evidence of a supposedly bellicose, new turn in Chinese foreign policy. Then, a catalytic moment seems to have occurred in July 2010 during the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi. At this meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted a U.S. national interest in freedom of navigation through the South China Sea and warned against the "use or threat of force by any claimant." Attending this event, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is said to have been surprised and furious at Clinton’s remarks. Then, in August, Vietnamese officers were taken aboard the USS George Washington aircraft carrier in a clear sign that the U.S. military intended to intensify its relationship with Vietnam’s armed forces to deter China. Major Chinese military exercises also took place in the South China Sea in August 2010.

A fresh round of tensions erupted this spring. The Philippines complained of Chinese incursions in their territorial waters, while Vietnam accused China of cutting its seismic exploration cables, which is both an escalation of the dispute and a symbol of Beijing’s disgust with the fact that Hanoi continues to actively explore in disputed areas. Washington’s response has been firm: At a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Asia Security Summit this June, Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed "deploying U.S. littoral combat ships to Singapore" and also "increasing … naval engagements … throughout the region."

Washington’s focus on "freedom of navigation," which has inexplicably become the main pillar of current U.S. policy in the region, is actually rather absurd. China, the world’s largest maritime trading nation by almost any measure, is very unlikely to threaten navigational freedoms — its own economy is almost wholly reliant on those very freedoms. The claim that China’s opposition to regular U.S. military surveillance activities in the South China Sea threatens "freedom of navigation" is likewise disingenuous and represents an unfortunate tendency to reach for the clever sound bite. In fact, such U.S. surveillance activities all along China’s coasts are excessive to the point of seriously disrupting the bilateral relationship and should thus be decreased, especially if linked to concrete progress on Chinese military transparency.

The alleged Chinese threat to ASEAN states, moreover, turns out to be more hype than fact. Much has been said about China’s new nuclear submarine base on Hainan Island, but the surprise is that up to now Beijing has had only one nuclear submarine base (Qingdao) — quite paltry when compared with the four operated by the U.S. Navy in the Pacific area. Similarly, the basing of a ballistic missile submarine and even China’s first aircraft carrier at Hainan would more likely represent weakness than strength. After all, alternative basing in north China simply means these high-value assets would be closer and hence more vulnerable to the impressive striking power of both the Japanese and U.S. fleets that are based primarily in Northeast Asia.

Those viewing Chinese "aggression" as the impetus for current tension might reasonably be asked why Beijing has only six outposts in the Spratlys (compared with 29 occupied by Vietnam), why Beijing is one of the only claimant states not currently pumping oil out of the South China Sea, and why the largest island in the Spratlys archipelago is actually occupied by Taiwan. In fact, China’s policy in the South China Sea has been largely reactive in both present and historical circumstances, which indeed explains a good bit of the incoherence of China’s present policy. China has settled the majority of its border disputes peacefully and is largely relying on unarmed patrol cutters to enforce its claims in the South China Sea — clearly a sign that it does not seek escalation to armed conflict.

And how would the situation look if roles were reversed? What if China had a defense treaty agreement with Venezuela (not to mention bases in Canada) and was vigorously pursuing annual military exercises with Cuba while offering to mediate various resource disputes in the Carribean? Washington probably wouldn’t look too kindly on such activities.

The brutal truth, however, is that Southeast Asia matters not a whit in the global balance of power. Most of the region comprises small, poor countries of no consequence whatsoever, but the medium powers in the region, such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Australia will all naturally and of their own accord stand up against a potentially more aggressive China. If China and Vietnam go to war over some rocks in the ocean, they will inevitably both suffer a wide range of deleterious consequences, but it will have only a marginal impact on U.S. national security. True, these sea lanes are critical to the Japanese and South Korean economies, but both of these states are endowed with large and capable fleets — yet another check on Beijing’s ambitions.

China, moreover, is all too aware of what happened to Georgia in 2008. In that unfortunate case, the United States showered a new ally with high-level attention and military advisors. But when Russian tanks rolled in, effectively annexing a large section of the country and utterly destroying Tbilisi’s armed forces, Washington’s response amounted to a whimper: There was, in the end, no appetite for risking a wider conflict with Moscow over a country of marginal strategic interest. The lessons for Southeast Asia should be clear.

Washington must avoid the temptation — despite local states cheering it on at every opportunity — to overplay its hand. The main principle guiding U.S. policy regarding the South China Sea has been and should remain nonintervention. Resource disputes are inherently messy and will not likely be decided by grand proclamations or multilateral summitry. Rather, progress will be a combination of backroom diplomacy backed by the occasional show of force by one or more of the claimants. In fact, Beijing’s record of conflict resolution over the last 30 years is rather encouraging: China has not resorted to a major use of force since 1979.

This untidy process need not roil the larger regional or global system. Dialogue must be a priority. Active U.S. cooperation with China in Southeast Asia, for example in the fight against piracy and terrorism — which constitute genuine threats to the vital sea lanes — could serve to build up trust in the security relationship that is sorely lacking at present. Such cooperation would also serve to reassure regional states that do not wish to see their region become the new cockpit of great-power rivalry.

To be sure, the United States must retain a "big stick," but much more actually needs to be done to "speak softly" through flexible, practical, and quiet diplomacy. New commitments, such as an enhanced defense relationship with Vietnam or other claimants should be avoided in order to prevent further escalation of this tension into actual violence.

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