Recently, top brass in the U.S. military have signaled repeatedly that U.S. naval vessels will “steam” ahead to within 12 nautical miles of occupied islets in the Chinese Spratly Islands, adopting a combative stance and bringing events in the South China Sea front and center once more in a heated international forum.
Looking back on the United States’ behavior in the South China Sea over the past few years, certain thoughts inevitably come to mind. In particular, thoughts turn to the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East and the Syrian refugee crisis, which grows more acute by the day. As the fire starter, the United States will find it difficult to shed culpability, especially as its arrogant sense of exceptionalism becomes more widely detested. Objectively speaking, the depth of U.S. involvement and string-pulling in Middle Eastern affairs cannot be denied, and indeed it has earned itself a reputation for not only making a mess of a situation, but for leaving its messes entirely unresolved — from its smug advancement of the Arab Spring to the loss of ground to the Islamic State’s chaos. It is quite clear that, despite the precision of the U.S. military’s supposed “surgical strikes” or the allure of the U.S. government’s prescription of democracy, the United States will find it no easy task to excise the stigma of a surgeon who cares more for wielding a knife than curing patients, a reputation to which the Middle East will readily attest.
Now, the United States is throwing its weight around in the South China Sea, day by day moving farther out from behind the curtain and taking main stage. The tone of its South China Sea policy has slowly graduated from “non-intervention” to “limited intervention” and again to “deep intervention,” an evolution which many have serious misgivings about. The clear-eyed among us will easily grasp the basic facts: Over the past few years, the South China Sea has gone from seeing nary a ripple to billowing waves, and the United States’ eastward shift of their strategic focus in 2009 will be seen as a key watershed moment.
So, to what end has the U.S. withdrawn from the Middle East in favor of “upping the ante” in Asia and the Pacific, by once more stirring the pot in the South China Sea? If the South China Sea is “Balkanized” and turns into a geopolitical powder keg, like the Middle East, as is not difficult to imagine, what will that spell for countries which border the South China Sea or for the international community? In light of the complexity of the South China Sea dispute, China, as an involved party, will unavoidably be affected. But if the United States seeks to use this stratagem to “consume” China and reap the benefits, it will find “cashing out” a far more difficult prospect than in the Middle East.
As to the United States’ frequent moves, as it flexes its “smart power” in the South China Sea, this author believes China should remain calm and reserved in its response. At this stage, China can easily adhere to a policy of reinforcement and entrenchment. On the one hand, China must acknowledge the complexity and intractability of the South China Sea conflict and, to maintain their policy, must augment their construction of the requisite installations to ensure their battlefield’s defensibility and strategic construction. On the other hand, China must understand the ramifications and long-term nature of the conflict and have the courage to protect its core interests in the South China Sea while maintaining its strategic willpower. Chinese policy, in terms of conflict, should be to “play the waiting game.” Rather than vainly hoping a miracle strategy will allow them to win with a single masterstroke, China should entrench itself at each step and advance slowly, relying on the steady growth and effective use of its combined strength to attain its end goals. In some respects, China is a pillar of peace and stability in the South China Sea. So long as China’s line does not fall into disarray, the South China Sea, similarly, will not descend into chaos.
Chinese leaders, speaking about the South China Sea, have pointed out on multiple occasions that China is unwilling to allow a descent into chaos, and furthermore will not make any moves itself to foment chaos or expound upon China’s interests in those waters. But if the United States insists upon “butting heads” with China and stirring up trouble in the South China Sea, that creates an entirely separate situation, and the United States will pay the price for its strategic and tactical bias, as well as its arrogance.
The author is a scholar of Chinese maritime affairs.
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