A fascinating public debate between Kurt Campbell — the originator and architect of the US pivot to Asia — and Australian strategic thinker Hugh White makes clear that the South China Sea has become the cockpit of US-China competition for domination of Asia. The outcome of this competition may determine whose and what principles, values and “order” will shape the future of Asia. That is why this competition is so fraught with threats to peace and stability in the region.
According to White, “Campbell argues that the pivot by promoting his model of an Asian ‘Operating System’ for the 21st century will provide the basis for a stable US-China relationship.” Indeed, Campbell — who may serve in a Hillary Clinton administration — says the US should organize and “conduct” a network of security and diplomatic relationships based on shared principles that will unite the region. This will be, according to US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Daniel Russel, “the pivot’s operating system 4.0,” meaning it is the next step. Campbell assumes that China will accept US primacy because it has done so and benefited from it in the past. But times have changed and China’s current leadership is unlikely to accept US primacy in any name or form. Indeed, in China’s eyes this “next step” sounds like US-led containment. It does not help that Hillary Clinton, the likely next US President and who publicly introduced and strongly promoted the pivot, has been quoted in leaked emails from 2013 as saying “We’re going to ring China with missile defense…We are going to put more of our fleet in the area.”
White is not advocating US withdrawal from the region. Indeed, he argues that “it is perfectly possible and highly desirable for the US to continue to play a major strategic role in Asia on a basis that China is willing to accept, and which therefore avoids escalating strategic rivalry and reduces the risk of war.” But this is highly unlikely. The US has no history or precedent of sharing power and it is not likely to start now. It just doesn’t seem to be in its foreign policy DNA.
White puts his finger on the crux of the problem when he says that American leadership seems to see this contest as “a question of whether America will dominate the region or retreat.” I agree with White’s major worry that “the US policy community has, with few exceptions, failed so far to understand the nature or the scale of the challenge it faces in negotiating [a] new relationship with China,” as China President Xi Jinping proposed to US President Obama at their 2013 Sunnylands summit.
What makes this situation so serious is what David Gompert — formerly the second-highest-ranking intelligence official in the Obama Administration — calls “crisis instability.” This occurs when “the price of failing to attack before the opponent does mean defeat. Each side knows the other is thinking the same way and so has all the more incentive to act pre-emptively if war seems imminent. Or probable. Or maybe just possible. Given the penalty for attacking second, such spiraling logic can turn confrontation into conflagration.”
According to Gompert, China is particularly worried about a long war in which the technically superior US forces would prevail. So, their military is developing plans and tactics for early and swift strikes to take out US carriers, air bases, and command and control networks, including satellites. Gompert argues that as a result “crisis instability” involving the two is increasing rapidly. Timing is also important. If an incident were to occur and escalate while the US is distracted by its Presidential election or transition, its reaction could be precipitous and violent.
This is how and where maritime incidents become possible triggers of a wider conflict. The US “rebalance” towards Asia, and China’s inexorable rise puts their naval and air forces in close proximity — especially at sea. Gompert has identified several flash points that could trigger war. One worst-case scenario is the use of force by China in its ongoing East China Sea confrontation with Japan. This could then draw in the US as Japan’s ally — at least for a counter show of force — a situation that would have its own hair-triggers for escalation. China considers sovereignty of the Japanese administered islands as a “core interest,” that is, one for which it is willing to fight. Coast guard vessels, naval warships, and aircraft from both sides are playing cat-and-mouse with increasing frequency, ratcheting up the tension and the possibility of a physical clash.
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.
The South China Sea is also a spark-filled venue. Prime among the sparks are the US’ so-called freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) and the missions of its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) ships and aircraft off China’s coast. In particular, the US considers these activities as exercises of “freedom of navigation” and thus a “national security interest.” China considers them annoying and provocative and has requested the US to desist.
The US believes China is developing an “anti-access/area denial” strategy that is designed to control China’s near seas and prevent access to them by the US in the event of a conflict, say between China and Taiwan. This strategy requires Chinese dominance of command, control, communications, computer and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems (C4 ISR). The US response is the air-sea battle concept, which depends on crippling China’s C4 ISR. This means that C4 ISR is the “tip of the spear” for both sides, and both are trying to dominate this sphere over, on, and under China’s near seas.
China is expanding its blue water navy capabilities and has built a new submarine base at Yulin on Hainan. Obviously, it wants to protect its “secrets” in the area, including the activities and capabilities of its submarines and the morphology of the sea bottom where its nuclear armed submarines could hide. And just as intently, the US wants to know as much as it can about China’s submarine capabilities and the area it may one day have to do battle in. This exacerbates the ISR contest and incidents are likely to become ever more dangerous. Indeed, this geographic convergence of strategies has set the stage for a worst-case scenario of confrontation between warships and planes of both countries.
Gompert says that the critical questions are: “If in a crisis, China’s military leaders were to advise its political leaders that US forces were preparing for war and China’s only chance to avoid defeat was to strike first — would ‘Beijing’ say ‘no’?” And if senior US military leaders were to advise the president that China was preparing for a pre-emptive strike, would he or she risk the loss of key assets by waiting?
China and the US have agreed on communication protocols for unplanned encounters at sea. But most encounters between the 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 the meetings any friendlier or less frequent. Indeed, if the US persists in provocative actions despite China’s repeated requests to cease and desist, it must expect to be challenged.
What’s needed is an agreement on a set of voluntary guidelines for military and intelligence-gathering activities in foreign exclusive economic zones and on definitions of permitted and prohibited conduct there. Such guidelines would provide indicators of friendly and unfriendly behavior and help parties avoid unnecessary incidents without banning any activities outright. The most relevant of these voluntary guidelines would be the increasingly meaningful obligation to only use the ocean for peaceful purposes, and to refrain from the threat or use of force, as well as provocative acts such as collecting information to support the use of force against the coastal state, or more relevant now — interfering with military communications and other electronic systems. However, the US has rejected any and all such guidelines — voluntary or not — as unacceptable. It is time for the US to re-consider its position.
While many analysts may deny or ignore the seriousness and scale of the situation, countries directly affected are demonstrating their angst in domestic political debates. These debates are like canaries in a coal mine — a political warning to China and the US that the stresses and strains of their competition are being felt region-wide. Clearly, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s about face in foreign policy and his attempt to restore good relations with China is driven in part by the realization that China is likely to be the dominant power in Asia. The debate over Australia’s policy regarding the South China Sea put Australia Foreign Minister Julie Bishop under pressure to declare that Australia does not conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. Even the White House is showing concern. It has banned senior Pentagon officials from describing the security challenges posed by China as a “competition.”
Maybe former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke has the solution. At China’s Xiangshan defense forum in October, he suggested that China lead a regional multilateral management approach to the South China Sea, including resources, the environment and security. Whatever approaches are chosen to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control, they are needed now.