Sand Pebbles: Why Are Superpowers Squabbling Over Rocks?

China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea is alarming the Navy and prompting calls for a more vigorous U.S. response.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.

Over the past year, Beijing has significantly raised the temperature in the South China Sea with a series of provocative actions that have unsettled nearby neighbors and furrowed brows in Washington. At question is just how the U.S. should respond to a frontal challenge that directly affects the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia without risking escalation or upending the need for broader cooperation between the world’s two great superpowers.

Since early last year, China has pushed drilling rigs into Vietnamese waters, built air-defense zones over disputed islands, and most recently has embarked on a massive land-reclamation effort on a spate of deserted reefs and rocks in the vital waterway. It appears to be part of a pattern of more assertive Chinese behavior that has intensified under the leadership of Xi Jinping, and it has policymakers, military leaders, U.S. lawmakers, and outside experts grappling with just how Washington should respond.

At first blush, it may seem odd that the status of tiny outcrops in the middle of the ocean could threaten relations between the two superpowers who need to cooperate on a spate of challenges such as managing the global economy, fighting nuclear proliferation, and tackling climate change.

But ultimately, it’s not really about rocks or reefs or rigs, or even the prospect of big deposits of oil and natural gas underneath the South China Sea. Rather, it boils down to a vision of the international order and raises the fundamental question of whether a rising China will continue to respect global rules put in place in the decades after World War II — or whether it seeks to undermine them and reshape the global order in its own image, including the use of coercion to advance its diplomatic goals. And the pace and scope of Chinese challenges to the existing order have amplified calls for Washington to move beyond canned condemnations and take a sharper line on Beijing’s behavior.

“The situation on the ground is changing, and U.S. behavior isn’t changing enough,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, an Asia-Pacific expert at Georgetown University.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Thursday released a Pentagon-commissioned study on future scenarios for cooperation and conflict in the Pacific. It stressed the key role that U.S. strategy, rather than Chinese moves, can play in shaping the next quarter century.

But even Obama administration officials acknowledge that their Chinese counterparts are unreceptive to U.S. pleas for moderation or expressions of concern; Chinese foreign-policy spokesmen repeatedly chide Washington for butting in on what Beijing sees as bilateral disputes.

For years, China has been pushing an aggressive interpretation of its rights in the South China Sea, a vital waterway through which $5 trillion of global trade passes each year. Based on a 1940s-era map, the so-called “9-dash line,” Beijing claims nearly the whole area, while neighbors such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia have their own claims to parts of the sea. Since last summer, China has sought to put muscle behind its legal claims by dredging sand and physically increasing the size of tiny and isolated atolls.

Those actions, which analysts and U.S. officials say go far beyond anything similar carried out by China’s neighbors, worry warriors and wonks alike.

U.S. naval leaders have increasingly sounded the alarm over Chinese antics. Adm. Samuel Locklear, head of U.S. Pacific Command, told a House committee last month that Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, especially efforts to build military installations on abandoned reefs, poses a threat to regional stability. Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, warned this week in Australia that Beijing’s “great walls of sand” raise questions over whether China seeks cooperation or confrontation.

Top U.S. lawmakers, including the heads and ranking members of the Senate armed services and foreign relations committees, wrote President Barack Obama last month urging the administration to craft a strategy to deal with China’s challenge. Beijing’s use of coercion to alter the status quo in the South and East China Seas, in particular, “demands a comprehensive response from the United States and our partners,” wrote Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Jack Reed (D-RI).

The Obama administration recognizes the threat from Chinese behavior, and sees it as, in some ways, a bellwether of where Beijing’s foreign policy is headed.

“China’s behavior on maritime disputes is raising real concerns in the United States and in the region, and the more it proceeds with land reclamation, it will generate insecurity and create the possibility for real long-term instability,” said a senior Obama administration official.

“How China proceeds with these projects will be a key indicator of what its intentions are in the South China Sea, and more broadly,” a senior U.S. State Department official told Foreign Policy.

Many security analysts agree that China’s newfound aggressiveness raises the risk of confrontation and could force the United States to modify the way that it has addressed China’s maritime and territorial challenges so far.

The Carnegie study also underscored the degree to which maritime disputes, like China’s fights with neighbors over barren rocks in the South China Sea or with Japan over islands in the East China Sea, could spark regional tensions and even armed conflict in years to come. The report urged Washington to “sharpen” its response to maritime disputes, perhaps by crafting ways to share the region’s energy resources and so make each reef and sandbar less vital to grab and garrison.

But even as China has flouted international law and regional agreements to build airstrips and other military installations on disputed bits of rock, Washington has largely stuck to the same playbook it has employed for years. That includes urging China to respect the rule of law, and expressing serious concern when Beijing doesn’t play by the rules.

When China does take provocative steps — such as dispatching an oil rig to waters claimed by Vietnam and guarding it with scores of warships, or laying an airstrip on a rock it doesn’t even own — diplomats have repeatedly rapped Beijing’s knuckles both publicly and privately. At the same time, Washington has bolstered the ability of allies and partners in the region, for example by allowing arms sales to Vietnam or beefing up the Philippine navy.

“If China continues its assertive activities, we’ll continue to speak out and work with partners and allies to uphold peace and stability,” the State Department official said.

But critics say those verbal protests largely fall on deaf ears in Beijing, and entreaties to China’s better angels have so far failed to produce a substantive change in Chinese foreign policy. Trying to convince the Chinese that certain things are or are not in their national interest I think is a dead end,” Georgetown’s Mastro said. “They will always have different strategic priorities.”

The big question is how the United States should respond to China’s maritime aggression even as it seeks greater cooperation across a broad range of other issues, from Iran to North Korea to cybersecurity. “We have no illusions about the complexity of dealing with a rising power like China,” said the administration official. “We have to find the right balance between cooperation and competition, and it’s a shifting balance depending on their behavior.”

When it comes to Beijing’s in-your-face approach to the South China Sea, Washington has sought above all to maintain peace and stability in the region, de-escalating potential conflicts with China, and repeatedly urging Beijing to abide by the rule of law, including the U.N. Law of the Sea and a regional code of conduct, both of which are meant to regulate states’ behavior regarding territorial claims.

At the same time, administration officials say that China itself is learning that its aggressive behavior can be counterproductive. Beijing’s approach in recent years has indeed pushed Japan to jettison its post-World War II pacifism and embrace a more ambitious defense role. It has nudged countries like the Philippines and Vietnam closer to the United States, and has redoubled Australia’s commitment to Washington. Chinese arrogance has to a certain extent unified many countries in the normally fractious Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional security group.

“We highlight to the Chinese that this just pushes countries more toward the United States, who in particular are looking for greater security cooperation with us,” said the senior administration official. He highlighted President Obama’s “historic” reaffirmation of U.S. security guarantees to Japan, which would be activated in the event Tokyo and Beijing came to blows over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Of course, greater support for allies and partners carries its own risks, which make responding to Chinese behavior even more challenging. Backstopping countries such as Japan or the Philippines in their territorial disputes with China could lead Washington into the real Thucydidean trap, where a big power gets sucked into war due to reckless behavior by a smaller ally. The new Carnegie study highlights the risk of a “vicious cycle” where the U.S. backs allies in order to send a signal to China, but only ends up encouraging more risky behavior.

Ultimately, many experts say, the United States won’t be able to chart a good response to smaller irritants like oil rigs and reef reclamation until it comes to grips with the elephant in the room: how can China and the United States find a way to co-exist after seventy years of unquestioned U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific?

“The broader, big picture, strategic issues have to be resolved before we can talk about the tactics of dealing with Chinese assertiveness,” Mastro said. “People at the highest levels of the U.S. government have to decide, how are we willing to change to allow for the peaceful rise of China, and are those costs prohibitively high?”

Photo credit: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP