The U.S. Navy destroyer William P. Lawrence entered the Fiery Cross Reef of the South China Sea on May 10 as an act of provocation, and was warned by the Chinese on the scene. Chinese officials then immediately issued a strict warning. A single U.S. warship could not pose a significant threat to our islands and facilities, but this gesture is how the United States declares its naval supremacy. The Sino-America contest in the South China Sea resumes the game between the great nations.
China’s construction on the Nansha islands (Spratly Islands) has made considerable progress. The U.S. is incapable of halting progress, but it attempts to increase its naval patrol operation, to push forward the South China Sea arbitration and to strengthen relationships with alliances in order to undermine China’s strategic achievement and to increase the costs of expansion on the islands.
The South China Sea arbitration may result in a “ruling” soon, but Aquino III of the Philippines, who was tough on China, will soon step down, too, and the newly elected Rodrigo Duterte has sounded a flexible tone on South China Sea issues. Due to these two factors, the Philippine nation is a wild card with respect to both China and the U.S., and the American warships showing off at this time probably represented Washington’s intention to seize the initiative.
Nonetheless, both Chinese and America operate on the principle of “you fight your battle, I fight mine”; the Chinese develop the islands whereas the U.S. warships demonstrate their power. As long as both sides do not confront each other intentionally, the possibility of military conflict is unlikely in the meantime. If this goes on, China will score better than the U.S.; this is because once the island construction is completed, China will have a strong foundation for its initiatives. The geopolitical relationships in the South China Sea are not permanent, and the most reliable power that the U.S. can utilize to deal with China is still its warships and aircraft.
U.S. warships have repeatedly entered the contested waters with continuously decreasing impact; soon it will become meaningless. China-Vietnam and China-Philippines relationships seem to have overcome the worst period which arose from unfamiliarity with each other’s strength during naval clashes. The current uncertainty shows how destructive the “ruling” of the South China Sea arbitration is and how it will impact the current situation; the destroyer William P. Lawrence actually couldn’t steal much of the limelight.
What can be expected is that the arbitration will bring more public pressure on China and will be repeatedly mentioned by the U.S. and Japanese officials and Western media. However, it will not have any practical consequences. The Philippines, which filed the arbitration, has exhausted its excitement over the act, and in particular, the new Duterte government did not show much interest. It will be difficult for the Philippines and Vietnam to take further practical action based on this.
Both China and the U.S. probably will not directly increase much of their bargaining power with respect to the South China Sea contest because each side does not lack countermeasures. To do so implies the consumption of additional resources for both sides. Therefore, it is not an attractive option. Both sides will probably pay more attention to alternative measures other than the short-term naval encounter between the two nations.
The first “periphery war” between China and the U.S. focuses on competing for support from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states. In general, limited competition between China and the U.S. will benefit the ASEAN countries, but once the Sino-American conflict intensifies, this will force countries within the region to take sides, which will harm their interests. Most ASEAN countries are willing to seek a balance between China and the U.S.; this is the key geopolitical logic of the region. Although both China and the U.S. will not give up further diplomatic efforts, there is not much room for a breakthrough.
The most practical element of the “periphery war” lies in the follow-up power-building by both China and the U.S. in the aftermath of the South China Sea contest. The growth or decline of economic strength, combat capacity against worst-case scenarios in the South China Sea, and the global diplomatic situation of both countries will affect their resolution of South China Sea policy.
If the South China Sea eventually evolves into a primary strategic showdown between China and the U.S., this will benefit China more. This is because the whole of Chinese society can move forward to do what is right without hesitation, as this contest implies that there is a simultaneous solution to the main issues surrounding China, and with respect to strategic diplomacy issues, it will be worthwhile for us. However, the South China Sea issue is only a part of America’s historic greediness. Americans will struggle from the outset, and will consider the South China Sea as a burden sooner or later.
Hence, the South China Sea will become China’s long-term focus. It is not easy for us, but we are able to cope with it for as long as it takes. In the South China Sea, our problems with the Philippines and Vietnam are territorial disputes, but with the U.S. it is a strategic dialogue between a rising nation and a developed country. For our territorial integrity, as well as for the right of our nation’s revival, the Chinese will not tire or slack off with respect to the South China Sea.