South China Sea: how well do China and the US really know each other’s intentions?

The visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia signals a new era of competition between the United States and China in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.

China critics in the US frequently warn of what they assume are China’s dangerous intentions regarding the South China Sea – and what it may do to achieve its goals. They say it wants to dominate the sea militarily as part of its ambitious and aggressive expansionism and that, therefore, it will continue to militarise the features it occupies and undertake major naval exercises there.

They say China may interfere with freedom of commercial navigation and essentially control all activities there, including fishing, and oil and gas exploration and development. To accomplish this, it will continue to intimidate rival claimants, coerce them via economic aid and “debt traps” and defy – and change – the existing applicable intentional rules.

Reinforcing these warnings, the US has officially declared China a “strategic competitor” and a “revisionist nation”. It has thus made clear it considers China a potential enemy, and it is presumed that “the gnomes in the basement” of the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department are constructing and planning for worst-case scenarios – including war.

More specifically, the US has repeatedly criticised China’s claims, actions and policies in the South China Sea and has even publicly embarrassed it by barring it from the Rim of the Pacific naval exercises until it has “ceased all land reclamation activities in the South China Sea” and “removed all weapons from its land reclamation sites”.

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But we do not read as much about what China’s strategic thinkers believe the US intentions are in the South China Sea and what they think the US might do to achieve its goals there. Indeed, because of this information deficiency – or what the US calls “lack of transparency” – US strategic analysts are left to speculate on China’s intentions.

However, in doing so, they may be underestimating China’s ability to project and plan for what it views as worst-case scenarios regarding the US “threat”. Therefore, it may be useful to begin a discussion of China’s perspective regarding the South China Sea with a hypothetical tapestry of China’s thinking.

Some strategic thinkers in China have concluded that China and the US are almost certain to clash militarily because of “civilisational” and ideological differences – as well as the sheer desire of both to dominate. Indeed, some think the US wants to continue to dominate the South China Sea militarily as part of its overall strategy to contain and constrain China. They expect various specific US moves to try to reach this goal.

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From their perspective, the US is trying to prevent its rightful domination of its “near seas” like the South China Sea and in doing so is supporting former Western colonies that have been “stealing” its fish and petroleum for decades in collaboration with outside Western entities.

Much to their chagrin, they point out that after agreeing in the 2002 China-Asean Declaration on Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea to resolve the disputes “through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned”, some of the other claimants have welcomed the US and even their former arch-enemy Japan to “intervene” in the issues.

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In the military sphere, they expect the US to increase its operations there, as well as exercises with, and port visits to, allies and friends in the region, and to attempt to obtain access to more places for refurbishing and refreshing its military. They also expect the US to increase the frequency and scope of its freedom of navigation operations challenging China’s claims, and to try to persuade its allies to participate – or at least to undertake their own.

Validating these fears, US freedom of navigation operations targeting China’s claims in the South China Sea have already increased under President Donald Trump’s administration. And, Japan’s largest Maritime Self-Defence Force naval vessel – the helicopter carrier Kaga – and its escorts recently held exercises with the US Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group in the South China Sea. Moreover, earlier this month, a UK warship challenged China’s claim of baselines around the Paracel Islands.

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These analysts also project that the US will continue to interfere in the Asean-China negotiations to formulate a code of conduct for the South China Sea. They also expect the US to increase its efforts to pull China’s rivals like the Philippines and Vietnam deeper into its orbit with economic and military help, as well as veiled threats of “punishment” if they stray too far towards China.

In one worst-case scenario, they think the US will encourage these rivals to take unilateral action against China’ claims and actions in the South China Sea, with vague hints of backing them up if they are attacked. In another, they project that the US will implement a blockade of its economic lifeline – particularly its oil and gas imports – traversing the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea.

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In the broader strategic arena, these analysts expect the US to stoke the Taiwan issue and encourage Japan to step up its military activities in the East China Sea as ways of distracting and pressuring China on the South China Sea. They also see the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Quad, a potential – but unlikely – partnership between Australia, India, Japan and the US – as a means to contain it, both in general and in the South China Sea.

One may argue that some or all of this is paranoia on both sides – and it may well be. Nevertheless, this is a realistic hypothetical description of the strategic view from China. You may have a different set of assumptions and hypotheses, but the point is that a one-sided perspective is unhelpful and only stimulates a spiral of worst-case-scenario thinking and formulation of plans to counter them.

Yes, China has behaved badly in the South China Sea. So have other claimants – including the US. All need to tone down their rhetoric, incorporate balance in their strategic analyses and be realistic in diagnoses, prognoses and prescriptions. Above all, there is a need for China, the US and their strategic analysts to understand how the other sees the problem. They should look for areas of compromise rather than simply spin out worst-case scenarios based on questionable assumptions.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

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