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China Tests American Resolve: More Trouble in the South China Sea

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"What would America fight for?" exclaimed The Economist, as it cautioned the Obama administration against strategic retreat and neo-isolationism. It dismissed President Obama's foreign policy as a cerebral doctrine that excuses inaction -- one that is based on visceral recoil at confrontation and distaste for strategic gamble. It warned Washington about increasing doubt among allies, many of them relying on the American security umbrella, which "risks making the world a more dangerous, nastier place," as strategic rivals such as Russia and China become "keener to dominate their neighbours".

Well, the U.S. President Barack Obama's recent visit to Asia (April 23-29) was, at its very core, a "reassurance" maneuver, an attempt to calm the nerves of allies and underscore Washington's commitment to remain as an anchor of stability in Asia. And in many ways it was a partial success.

After all, the trip allowed Obama to unequivocally state Washington's commitment to come to the rescue of Tokyo if a conflict were to erupt over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. And he couldn't be more reassuring. A more careful analysis reveals that the motivation behind Obama's categorical statement of military solidarity with Japan had a profound diplomatic implication. On the surface, Japan and China are "sleepwalking" into a war, the greatest nightmare for Asia, over a bunch of rocks and deeply-buried (prospective) hydrocarbon resources. In reality, however, Obama has strengthened Japan's negotiating position vis-à-vis China, which has actually reduced its maritime incursions into Japan's territorial waters -- probably out of a fear of uncontrolled escalation.

With full American military backing, Abe has more diplomatic leverage, and can better negotiate a long-term de-escalation of the territorial disputes with China. In exchange, the Abe administration has promised to (a) tone down its provocative ultra-nationalist posturing, which has enraged many neighbors across Asia, and (b) embark on a sustained diplomatic effort to resolve territorial and historical spats with South Korea.

In Malaysia, Obama managed to strike a highly-symbolic "comprehensive [strategic] partnership" agreement, which facilitates the decoupling of a critical Southeast Asian "swing state" from China's sphere of influence. After all, Malaysia is beginning to feel the heat in the South China Sea, as it increases its diplomatic coordination with other claimant states such as Vietnam and the Philippines, and more pro-actively diversifies its external strategic relations. Above all, Obama's visit to Manila coincided with the signing of a new security pact, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which provides the U.S. forces inexpensive, flexible access to Philippine bases.

In exchange, the U.S. is expected to provide greater military assistance to the Philippines, deepening bilateral military interoperability and enhancing the capacity of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to deal with traditional and non-traditional security issues. The deal allows Obama to enhance Washington's strategic footprint in Asia, a hedge against a rising China. But, he fell short of offering categorical military support to the Philippines over the disputed territories in the South China Sea. Consequently, China has more room for manuvering in the South China Sea, as it separately flirts with diplomatic engagement with (a more powerful and increasingly independent) Japan.

China Strikes Back

Since October, China has dramatically reduced the number of coast guard and para-military patrols to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. It also dispatched an informal Chinese emissary, Hu Deping, a close friend of President Xi Jinping and son of the late reformist leader Hu Yaobang, to Tokyo, where he reportedly met top Japanese officials, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Last December, when Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which houses several Class-A war criminals, the streets of Beijing were relatively quiet. This is in clear contrast to 2012, when nation-wide anti-Japanese protests across China led to a significant deterioration in bilateral ties and economic linkages, forcing a moderate government in Tokyo, under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), to correspondingly harden its stance.

In short, there are serious indications that China is once again willing to manage the crisis in the East China Sea in a more constructive manner. Balance of power considerations have obviously played a critical role, as Japan builds up its military capacity and relaxes self-imposed restrictions on arms exports.

In the South China Sea, however, it is a different story. Immediately after Obama's trip to Asia, the Philippines, partly emboldened by the EDCA, seized a Chinese boat, which allegedly engaged in large-scale illegal capture of endangered species near Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly chain of Islands. China immediately called for the release of captured Chinese fishermen -- to no avail. But the greater drama emerged in the northern portion of the South China Sea, in the Paracel chain of islands.

China dispatched HYSY981, a $1 billion deep-water oil drilling rig, to Vietnam's hydrocarbon-rich Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), accompanied by an armada of Chinese para-military vessels. Shortly after, Vietnam accused China of targeting its naval vessels, which was captured on video and presented at a press conference before international media. Vietnam has dispatched up to 30 vessels to the area, vowing to defend its territorial rights against China.

This was an outright act of provocation, and there is a great sense of betrayal in Vietnam. Unlike the Philippines and Japan, Vietnam is not a treaty ally of the U.S., and Obama is yet to make a visit to the country. For years, Vietnam has tried to play a low-profile diplomatic game to facilitate bilateral maritime negotiations with China. Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam has also refused to file an arbitration case against China's "nine-dash-line" doctrine, which notoriously accords China "inherent" and "indisputable" sovereignty over almost entire South China Sea. Keeping China's sensitivities in mind, Vietnam didn't openly support the Philippines' legal efforts against China. By playing it quiet and conciliatory, Vietnam sought constructive engagement with China.

In this sense, recent actions against Vietnam were entirely unprovoked.

The American Response

From a strategic point of view, however, China took advantage of the fact that Vietnam has no enduring treaty alliance with a regional or international power, but instead relies on a flexible network of strategic partnerships with the likes of Russia, India, Japan, and the U.S.

Amid domestic anger over Washington's growing strategic footprint in Asia, and an uptick in the Uighur insurgency in the Chinese autonomous province of Xinjiang, China seems to have calculated that creating a crisis in South China is good domestic politics.

"From Tokyo to Manila, Obama has tried to pick his words so as not to antagonize Beijing. But from the US-Japan joint statement to the new US-Philippines defense agreement, it is increasingly obvious that Washington is taking Beijing as an opponent," lamented China Daily, a leading state-run newspaper in mainland China, which has generally been known for a more measured, professional language vis-à-vis contentious international issues.

Unsurprisingly, Washington has adopted a very tough diplomatic language in response to China's recent posturing in the South China Sea, placing the blame squarely on the Chinese side. It also conducted a high-profile joint-military exercise in the Philippines, with 5,500 Filipino and American troops launching a mock assault on a South China Sea feature. It was a thinly-veiled response to China's growing assertiveness in the area.

Nonetheless, given the glaring power asymmetry between China, on one hand, and other Southeast Asian claimant states, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, it is hard to imagine any retrenchment in Chinese posturing in absence of a more decisive American military mobilization. By refusing to offer categorical military support to the Philippines over the disputed features in the South China Sea, Beijing has been tempted to test the limits of the Obama administration's commitment to its regional allies.

As the leading Australian strategist Hugh White points out, China can exploit a leadership vacuum in the region unless the Obama administration shows that it is 'willing to use "all the elements of American power" to resist China's challenge to the regional status quo based on US leadership in Asia." The U.S.' Pivot to Asia ran into trouble, White argues, because "almost as soon as it was announced...Beijing set out to test it on the Scarborough Shoal", a South China Sea feature that falls within the Philippines' EEZ but was captured by Chinese forces after a brief naval standoff in mid-2012. In short, the U.S. has to choose between stepping up its military brinkmanship with China, or accept a shared leadership in East Asia.

Over all, Obama's recent trip to Asia added much-needed momentum to the pivot policy; but recent developments suggest that China is willing to push the envelope in the South China Sea to undermine Washington's credibility and put into question its wherewithal to assert uncontested leadership in East Asia. Increasingly, Washington will have to either step up its military commitments to countries such as the Philippines, or accept the seeming inevitability of China's rise by accommodating the prospects of a new, bipolar security architecture in the region. Obviously, weaker South China Sea claimants hope Washington goes for the former option.