High Risk, No Reward

Newsweek wrote on April 29th, “Navy sends second ship into disputed waters after china claims it scrambled jets to expel US destroyer.” The day before, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) announced the American guided-missile destroyer USS Barry, violated Chinese sovereignty when it cruised by the Chinese controlled Paracel Islands in the South China Sea (SCS). The PLA claims, without evidence, to have forced the Barry out of the area. However, the U.S. Navy reported, the “operation proceeded as planned without encountering any unsafe or unprofessional behaviour from Chinese military….”

The next day, the Navy announced, the “guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) past a Chinese military supply depot” in a second area of the SCS. According to the United Nations, international maritime law allows for passage through a country’s territorial sea without notification as long as it doesn’t conduct any military operations. China claims the acts violate its sovereignty and could lead to an unintentional incident.

The U.S. Navy claims unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the SCS are a serious threat to international maritime law, “this freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.” Hannah Beech for the New York Times cautions, “a 1.4-million-square-mile sea presents a kaleidoscope of shifting variables: hundreds of disputed shoals, thousands of fishing boats, coast guard vessels and warships and, increasingly, a collection of Chinese fortresses,” where “an unexpected encounter in the SCS could…set off an international incident.”

While PLA spokesman Li Huamin adds, “these provocative acts by the US side…have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security interests deliberately increased regional security risks and could easily trigger an unexpected incident.” Chen Guangcheng for the Washington Post describes it differently. “China is a deep-pocketed, rapacious regime that poses a significant threat not just to American interests but to the entire civilized world.”

Normally, FONOPs are low-risk maneuvers not necessarily directed against any one country. The problem is they are a reminder of U.S. hegemony. President Xi Jinping promised the Chinese people greater standing in the world and especially in the region. Controlling the SCS is integral to China’s plans. FONOPs then add to already increased tensions between the two powers. The Coronavirus pandemic adds another dimension to the tension and highlights rifts in the U.S.-China relationship. In the media, Trump and Xi trade barbs over the origin of the Coronavirus.

However, the tension is deeper than who to blame for the pandemic. The Economist wrote, “Trump is making confrontation with China central to his campaign.” The Xi administration uses similar tactics by promoting outspoken critics of the U.S., Zhao Lian, and Lin Songtian to high-profile media posts for their “fighting spirit.” More importantly, FONOPs may not actually affect change. Li Chen, professor of international studies at Renmin University, via the China File noted China’s success using non-military elements to “substantially improve her position in the SCS, while the Trump administration’s overemphasis on military options has reduced the effectiveness and credibility of US military posture.”

According to Bill Hayton, author of “The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia,” Deng Xiaoping told his Vietnamese counterpart, Le Duan, in 1975 that the islands of the SCS ‘have belonged to China since ancient times.’ The truth is more muddled. The SCS is rich in oil, natural gas, and fishing grounds. It is also a strategic waterway through which one-third of global trade passes annually.

Additionally, four other countries, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, have historical claims in the Sea. However, the trouble started when China claimed most of the SCS as sovereign territory (the 9-dash line). By 2014, China built military outposts and stationed missile batteries in the area. Despite a 2016 international ruling that China has no legal basis for its claim, China continues to patrol and harass commercial ships in the 9-dash area. The FONOPs conducted by the U.S. have hardly prevented Beijing from gaining control of a region more than 500 miles from mainland China.

Robert Gilpin, author of the book “War and Change in International Politics,” describes three conditions that precipitate a war against a hegemon. First, Gilpin describes a closing in of space. In the SCS, there is a physical closeness of U.S. and Chinese military units but technology has also made the world smaller. Trump and Xi constantly insult each other through the media as if they were shouting across a room.

Second, one must perceive a historic shift as underway. For President Xi, that shift is embodied in the slogan, “the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” According to Liu Mingfu for the BBC, President Xi’s dream is of a stronger nation with a strong military. As evidence, China now has the largest navy in the world at 300 ships and is about to unveil its first stealth bomber.

Third, events that are outside of human control. Obviously, a pandemic flu fits the description. But also the ensuing global recession will surely seem outside of human control. It is in this environment that the U.S. has to consider which policies achieve global order. Lieutenant General (Retired) William Odum argues it’s not just military and economic power but also skillful diplomacy and multilateral solutions. Great! We’re half-way there.

Adam Ragozzino
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