The media, analysts and even the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee have criticized US President Donald J. Trump for “pausing” US Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. Indeed, on 10 May the US Senate Committee sent a letter to Trump urging him to restart the FONOPs. But Trump’s pause is the right thing to do — if for the wrong reasons.
The Trump administration’s early statements indicated it would be hard on China. Regarding China’s behavior in the South China Sea, his rhetoric during the presidential campaign as well as early statements from his relevant cabinet picks indicated that FONOPs in the South China Sea would become more frequent during his administration. At their confirmation hearings, both Rex Tillerson, the then nominee for Secretary of State, and James Mattis, the then nominee for Secretary of Defense, talked tough about challenging China’s actions in the South China Sea. Following their comments, an outburst of US media op-eds and editorials urged a more muscular US policy regarding China’s actions in the South China Sea.
But now, Trump and the officials have changed their tunes. Trump recently told Chinese President Xi Jinping that he will honor and observe the One China policy, having previously questioned it. Tillerson “clarified” his previous remarks and said that he is not advocating a blockade of China-occupied features. Mattis said that the US would focus on diplomacy and that “at this time, we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all” regarding the South China Sea disputes. Three requests from the US Commander in Chief of the Pacific to carry out new FONOPs against China have also been turned down. US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift explained that “we just present the opportunities… They are either taken advantage of or they’re not.”
It appears that Trump, in his “let’s make a deal” approach to foreign policy, has paused criticism and actions against China in general and in the South China Sea in particular in exchange for China’s assistance in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile development programs. This transactional approach means that his foreign policy is negotiable and not based on principles. But the immediate effect on US-China relations has been positive.
Before this pause, the two were working themselves into a corner that could have led — and still could lead — to confrontation and conflict in the South China Sea. This lull in US criticism and challenges at sea presents an opportunity for a reassessment of, and maybe even a restart, in their policies and relations on this issue.
The US claims that one of its main concerns is protection of “freedom of navigation.” But the US purposely conflates freedom of commercial navigation with freedom to undertake military intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) probes against China and others in the region. The US has alleged that China’s interference with ISR probes by its military vessels and aircraft in and over China’s EEZ (exclusive economic zone) violates freedom of navigation. China has responded that it is not challenging freedom of navigation but US abuse of this right by its military. It maintains that it has not and will not interfere with maritime trade.
The pause offers a chance for the US and China to maneuver their way out of a deadlock which disadvantages both.
Southeast Asian countries have not explicitly taken a position on this aspect of this complex issue — individually or collectively. This is understandable because it does not directly involve them and is essentially a bilateral US-China dispute that can only be resolved by these two parties. Although the US has asked several of its Asian allies to join its FONOPs, they have demurred. However, the resolution of this particular dispute would be warmly welcomed by Southeast Asia in general. What they fear most is that they will be used as pawns in an intensifying great power struggle.
The US also claims it wants to maintain the rules-based order in the South China Sea. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a key part of that rules-based order. The US says that in addition to China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are in violation of aspects of UNCLOS and it has challenged these violations militarily with FONOPs. Ironically, unlike most of Asia and indeed the world, the US has not ratified UNCLOS and may even be violating some of its provisions. It is the US itself that is undermining this Convention — and thereby the rules-based order.
The key points are that (1) the US is on questionable legal and political grounds when it criticizes others’ behavior in the South China Sea; (2) the interests of the US and Southeast Asian countries are diverging on these issues; and (3) China has legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed. The pause offers a chance for the US and China to maneuver their way out of a deadlock which disadvantages both.
The US claims that it does not want to control the shots in the region and constrain China. If that is truly the case, then the dispute over what constitutes freedom of navigation and militarization could and should be negotiated, instead of the US and China continuing on a path towards military confrontation.
China and the US have already agreed on communication protocols for unplanned encounters at sea. But most encounters between US ISR vessels and aircraft and China’s warships and planes are not unplanned, unintentional, or even unexpected. While the new agreements may make the encounters safer, they will not make them any friendlier or less frequent. What is needed is an agreement on a set of voluntary guidelines for military and intelligence-gathering activities in foreign EEZs and on definitions of permitted and prohibited conduct there. Such guidelines would provide indicators for friendly and unfriendly behavior and help parties avoid unnecessary incidents without banning any activities outright. But so far, the US has rejected any and all such guidelines, voluntary or not, as unacceptable. There is now an opportunity for the US to reconsider its position.
However, any such agreement should be ancillary to a grander bargain on the South China Sea. This bargain would in essence be a political and military stand-off with de-escalation. China would refrain from further occupation, construction, and “militarization” of its claimed features. It would also not undertake any provocative actions like occupying and building on Scarborough Shoal, harassing other claimants in the area, and declaring an air defense identification zone over the Spratlys. China would also agree to a Code of Conduct for activities in the South China Sea — although it may not be as robust or as binding as many would like. The US, in turn, would decrease or cease altogether its provocative FONOPs against China there and its “close-in” ISR probes.
Such an “agreement to disagree” would not be a panacea. Since nothing would be fully and finally resolved, it would probably result in intensifying sub rosa competition — a “cool war” — between the two for soft-power influence in the region. This would increase pressure on the region’s countries to pick and choose between them. It could even see stepped-up covert operations by both in vulnerable countries, in which the two powers would support “friendly” domestic factions and foment opposition to their “enemies.” In sum they would be passing the problem on for future generations to resolve. But that is better than a short-term train wreck — which was beginning to look like the inevitable result of the collision course the US and China are, or hopefully, were on.