With more tit-for-tat rhetoric and military posturing, China and the United States seem to be heading towards a showdown in the South China Sea.
Upping the ante, on August 26, China fired vaunted “aircraft-carrier killer” missiles into the sea, apparently as a response to the US show of force there with aircraft carrier strike groups. This came after a US U-2 spy plane flew over Chinese naval exercises in the Bohai Sea in violation of a no-fly zone. The US followed up China’s missile test by deploying a ballistic missile-detection aircraft to spy on China’s military drills.
This all came in the midst of a sharp downward spiral in relations, and in the aftermath of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent statement on US policy in the South China Sea, which increased the possibility of a clash there. What might come next can be captured in three scenarios.
In a “good” scenario, a united Asean – or at least a majority of nations – would take a stand against both countries’ military posturing and build-up in the area. China and the US would pull in their horns and start to negotiate in earnest.
To build confidence and trust, the US would refrain from the use of force, or the threat of it, and suspend its military build-up in the region, including its freedom of navigation operations challenging China’s claims, and its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes targeting China’s defences.
China would, in turn, refrain from bullying its rival claimants and negotiate a modus operandi that includes sharing and cooperating on management of the resources of the South China Sea.
China would also cease further construction and “militarisation” on its claimed and occupied features, agree not to occupy and build on Scarborough Shoal, and not declare an air defence identification zone over disputed waters. China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would agree on and abide by a code of conduct that stabilises the situation.
China and the US would reinvigorate their military communication channels and reaffirm their commitment to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea and negotiate an Incidents at Sea Agreement. Given this foundation, the US and China would agree to peacefully coexist and share power in the region.
In a scenario at the opposite end of the spectrum, China would continue to bully its rival claimants. One or more would appeal to the US for backup. The US – with its credibility at stake – would respond with warships and warplanes. China would refuse to back down and a clash would ensue.
While cooler heads would prevent things from spiralling out of control, the US-China relationship would plunge into a cold war in which Asean members are increasingly pressured to choose sides. US-China incidents at and over the sea would become more frequent and insurance rates for shipping through the region would rise significantly.
Foreign oil companies would suspend their operations, citing force majeure, and oil and gas exploration and exploitation beyond near-shore waters would all but cease. Clashes between foreign fishing fleets and national maritime enforcement agencies would become common. Negotiations for a code of conduct would collapse and the concept would be a lost cause.
Worse, if some Asean members did choose sides, the grouping may split, and its role in international affairs in the region would became irrelevant. In short, the South China Sea would become a sea of anarchy where might makes right.
The two powers would avoid a broad direct conflict only because China is not ready for war and the US is distracted by domestic issues. But as China’s power grows and US domestic issues resolve themselves, a reckoning would be more likely.
A more realistic scenario may be a continuation, and extension, of what we have now. In this scenario, the US and China would continue their military build-up and step up their diplomatic contest for the hearts and minds of Asean members. The code of conduct negotiations would drag on.
Asean members would lean more heavily on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 arbitration decision against China to increase pressure on it to abide by the ruling – largely to no avail. But they would also increase their opposition to outside military intervention in their disputes with China – again with limited success.
The “good” scenario is a bridge too far. In their 2013 Sunnylands summit, China’s President Xi Jinping proposed to then US president Barack Obama “a new model of great power relations” that implied equality and shared responsibility in world affairs. The US has essentially rejected it – apparently because it believes it is the world’s only exceptional nation. Expecting that to change soon is unrealistic.
The good news is that the “ugly” scenario is so disastrous that it is likely to be avoided by both sides. However, unexpected incidents and political developments could cause the situation to go from bad to ugly.
What if a Chinese anti-air missile system locks onto a US spy plane, for example? Do US forces in the area, as the Washington Examiner writes, “defend it by launching weapons against that Chinese system, or do they wait in the hope that China is bluffing?”
In the longer term, if the US wants to avoid direct conflict with China in the South China Sea – or at least postpone it – it must accommodate, or at least appear to accommodate, to some degree China’s international interests and aspirations. On what issues, when, how and how much are questions to ponder.