The Sydney Morning Herald
By Ashley Townshend
A growing chorus of officials and analysts is urging the Obama administration to take more assertive actions against Beijing's creeping strategic presence in the South China Sea.
Many want Washington to authorise 'freedom of navigation operations,' which would see US warships and aircraft deployed within 12-miles of China's man-made islands. Others are calling on Washington to pressure China by encouraging a coalition of Southeast Asian countries to set up a maritime code of conduct without Beijing's involvement.
Such actions may well be legitimate responses to China's rapid construction of a so-called 'Great Wall of Sand.' Indeed, its artificial islands may soon be able to sustain military operations, enabling Beijing to extend its reach over the South China Sea's vital international shipping routes.
But assertive American policies will not cause China to back down and may actually damage Washington's strategic position.
In theory, freedom of navigation operations by the US Navy would demonstrate that Washington is serious about preventing Beijing from using its new islands to restrict foreign military activities. American defence planners also hope that a strong show of force will deter Chinese leaders from pushing ahead with militarising the islands.
Unfortunately, this approach is likely to backfire. As such activities would be viewed in Beijing as a military provocation that Washington has no intention of carrying out, China would almost certainly react by calling America's bluff. Instead of complying with US demands, Beijing would probably step up its use of radio warnings to drive foreign navies and coastguards away from its islands. Worse, China might start scrambling its own ships and aircraft to intercept American or other regional forces that continued to operate at an unacceptable distance.
How would the US respond to such a scenario? Would it tolerate Chinese defiance at the expense of looking weak? Or would it issue stronger ultimatums and risk triggering a conflict? Either way, Washington would find itself in the unenviable position of having drawn a red line that it cannot enforce without escalating a crisis.
Assertive freedom of navigation operations would also churn up domestic pressures that China's top leadership could not afford to ignore. For most Chinese citizens, the South China Sea islands are not just sovereign territories, but are symbols of China's national dignity and its ongoing struggle to end a 'century of humiliation.' Images of American warships imposing on China's new facilities would thus trigger nationalist calls for a determined response. As the leadership is increasingly reliant on popular nationalism to shore up regime security in the face of China's economic slowdown, such calls would likely be heeded by Beijing.
Likewise in the military, muscular US actions will strengthen the hand of hardliners who are already calling on Beijing to set up an Air Defence Identification Zone in the South China Sea. This would probably see military aircraft and artillery permanently based on the islands, alongside forward deployed warships and paramilitary vessels.
Of course, Beijing may plan to militarise its islands and enforce a 12-mile perimeter regardless of American policy. Even if this were true, however, assertive freedom of navigation operations would still unnecessarily grant Beijing a pretext for action, even as these actions fail to improve Washington's capacity to deal with the consequences.
What about calls for a US-brokered code of conduct that would proactively advance rules for maritime behaviour in the South China Sea without soliciting input from China?
The logic of this approach is seemingly sound. As Beijing has consistently sought to delay signing such an agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, perhaps it is time to leave it behind. Instead, ASEAN or a subset of willing Southeast Asian countries could devise the rules themselves with support from Washington. In turn, it is hoped that Beijing would suffer damage to its reputation from being left out of the process or not adhering to the accord, and will be pressured to negotiate or sign up in good faith.
While justified, this approach is likely to produce the opposite effect.
For Washington to assertively orchestrate a regional accord would reinforce Chinese perceptions of American meddling. This alone would make Beijing a more truculent and uncooperative diplomatic partner, just as the Philippines' decision to take China to an international tribunal caused Beijing to harden its opposition to dispute resolution.
Adopting a coalition-of-the-willing approach to formulating South China Sea rules would also undercut the legitimacy of any agreement, giving Beijing an excuse to simply ignore the outcome. Of course, this depends on which states would actually sign up. For instance, if all ASEAN countries were on board except China's allies — Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar — the agreement would have a degree of diplomatic legitimacy, even if it were still rejected by Beijing.
This, however, is unlikely to happen. It is far from clear whether cautious players like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, or even Singapore would accept an agreement that not only left out China, but lacked a politically all-important ASEAN consensus. Moreover, despite occasional bouts of rhetorical defiance, most ASEAN countries are likely to shy away from a signing a strongly worded unilateral code of conduct for fear of the economic punishment that Beijing might inflict.
As such, Washington's assertive efforts would probably only forge a partial coalition whose code of conduct would either be weak or discredited by China, or both. This process may further damage ASEAN's unity and there would still be no viable way to enforce the agreement.
Crafting an effective response to China's provocative behaviour in the South China Sea is a difficult and highly frustrating task. Beijing's willingness to flaunt regional norms and to unilaterally establish new strategic realities understandably drives calls for tougher American actions. But assertive policies that embolden Beijing or inflame regional tensions are a counterproductive way to address this ongoing challenge.
This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald