On the issue of the South China Sea, the excessive demonstration of the U.S. military’s presence equates to the United States forcing the countries involved to take sides between China and America, which is not what the involved countries hope for, nor is it in accord with the interests of all sides.
The New York Times website reported on Sept. 13 that the U.S. chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, said at a forum held in Washington a few days ago that Malaysia recently invited the P-8 “Poseidon” cruiser to take off from the easternmost region of that country to conduct surveillance flights along the southern edge of the South China Sea. At the same time, on Sept. 12, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel also defended U.S. surveillance flights in the South China Sea, stating that “we have the right to conduct legitimate missions outside of China’s territorial space and there is a persuasive rational [sic] for doing so.”
That the United States is diligently seeking “legal principles” for surveillance flights in the South China Sea indicates that the incident in late August of the Chinese fighter jet intercepting the US P-8 surveillance plane still hasn’t truly subsided, which is not at all surprising. Reflected behind the “P-8 door” incident is whether America is able to respect China’s right to establish regulations for conduct in its coastal maritime space and airspace, and it relates to whether there is room for China and the U.S. to reach a consensus on this issue. Regarding this, whether the “convention” of U.S. surveillance flights in the South China Sea can be revised somewhat is a gauge of the level of strategic mutual trust between China and America.
The reason for Greenert and Russel’s repeated defense of the South China Sea surveillance flights lies in the fact that this represents an important component of U.S. global security strategy. When handling global security affairs, offshore balancing and selective engagement are commonly used methods of the United States. In the East Asia region, the Japanese-American security mechanism is the center of its offshore balancing strategy, while surveillance flights and naval ship patrols are the main center of its selective engagement strategy. These strategies highlight the U.S. military’s presence, while preserving its advantage. While the appeals of multiple countries are sounding in the South China Sea, China’s core interests are also involved. Implementing intervention in the South China Sea could bestow upon the U.S. the opportunity to serve as “arbitrator,” and at the same time it also could restrain the normal development of China’s national defense force, namely, the improvement of the so-called “anti-access” and “area denial” capabilities.
However, there is much doubt as to whether the United States will be able to obtain the strategic benefits it anticipates. One perspective is that as a foreign country in the region, for America to forcefully intervene in the South China Sea conflict would not be beneficial to the resolution of the South China Sea conflict. The South China Sea issue has both the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ 10 + N mechanism as a consultation platform, and the South China Sea Code of Conduct as a basis of operations. It can seek regional paths of resolution; foreign intervention will only increase the complexity of the issue. Another perspective is that excessive demonstration of the U.S. military’s presence equates to the United States forcing the countries involved to pick sides between China and America, which is not what the involved countries hope for, nor is it in accord with the interests of all sides. In fact, Malaysia’s defense minister denied ever discussing with the U.S. an invitation for the P-8 to take off and conduct surveillance flights from that country. This reflects this kind of worry.
Looking at it objectively, counting on America to very quickly change its “convention” of conducting surveillance flights in the South China Sea is by no means realistic. Yet America should at least be aware that it cannot send mixed signals about its relations with China. On Sept. 9, when United States National Security Advisor Susan Rice had just completed her China visit, strengthening the military trust relationship between China and America was among those things discussed. In contrast, content from a report composed by three former high-level U.S. officials and published by the Brookings Institution on Sept. 9 is more constructive: The United States should not regard the South China Sea disputes as the central strategic issue in China-U.S. relations. The U.S. needs to design a set of tactics that minimize the possibility of both sides getting bogged down in confrontations or conflicts and protects China-U.S. relations from being held hostage to South China Sea issues. Indeed, this kind of strategic vision is what one should have in establishing a new type of great power relationship between China and the United States.
About this publication