I have a piece up at Asia Times, The Salami Slices Back!, on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Spoiler: the threat to FoN is the linchpin justification for US meddling in the SCS, but it's pretty much BS.
Rather timely, isn’t it? Since the US started flying military patrol aircraft around PRC-held islands in the South China Sea yesterday to uphold “freedom of navigation”. And the PRC responded by flying some bomber around international airspace, apparently inside Japan’s ADIZ, occasioning an intercept.
Something I’d like to point out to people who get mil-boners from the idea of the US armed forces finally coming into direct confrontation with the PRC and forcing the arrogant Chinese dragon to its scaly knees: The PRC grits its teeth and lets the US military go where it wants; it retaliates asymmetrically, both in target (more vulnerable allies) and in measures (economic & diplomatic).
In my opinion things will get really interesting if/when Japan Self Defense Forces join the US military in these demonstration flights, and if/when US/Japanese forces protect a Philippine flotilla doing some hydrocarbon-related activity inside the Philippine EEZ, maybe after the UNCLOS arbitration declares the nine-dash-line invalid.
Meanwhile, unleash the journos and pundits! The US government has assiduously prepped for this escalation so that the operation and the Chinese reaction can be suitably presented in the public sphere.
An interesting element of the coverage is that it highlights the leading DoD role. The PRC activity is pretty much Ash Carter’s op.
Ash Carter, the US Secretary of Defense, has been remarkably mouthy in matters of foreign policy, not just on the PRC, in the area of policy pronouncements, threats, complaints, etc. (and actions like the recent assassination or was it failed capture? raid on that IS guy), so it was interesting to read an article by Greg Sheridan and Rowan Callick in The Australian marking the formal kickoff of the US SCS campaign.
It’s pretty frank and revealing and perhaps a sign that The Australian is either not completely housebroken or just doesn’t understand the house rules and rushed to print all the interesting tittle tattle it heard when it was read into the program, instead of sitting on it and just doling out the talking points (I suspect the “former senior US national security official” is Kurt Campbell and wonder if he’s berating the The Australian: “I p*ssed on Kerry to establish a false aura of intimacy and trust so you’d bank on me for your China spin. You weren’t supposed to print it, ferchrissakes.”)
I've highlighted some of the more striking bits for rushed or inattentive readers. In another plug for my AT article, notice how the Freedom of Navigation canard is central to the US framing of its South China Sea activities.
Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for Asia in the first four years of the Obama administration, told The Australian: “The combination of new Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, and Admiral Harry Harris has brought a much needed strategic focus to what the US needs to do in the South China Sea to underscore its commitment to firmly held international principles, such as freedom of navigation and the legal resolution of territorial disputes. If you’re looking for consistency and continuity of US policy over decades, between Democrats and Republicans, it is around the issue of preserving the sea lines of communication.
“It is clear the US wants a good relationship with China but these principles are not up for negotiation.”
…A wide range of Washington sources said The Wall Street Journal story had been leaked by the US Pacific Command, which was extremely concerned about Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea.
Since the appearance of the story in the Journal, momentum in favour of the freedom of navigation action has increased.
The effect of the leak is that if the Obama administration now does not undertake a freedom of navigation action, it will be seen to have backed away from asserting America’s core traditional position.
Washington sources said Mr Carter was proving a strong and assertive defence secretary.
Mr Obama was unable to get his first choice — Michelle Flournoy — to take the post to succeed Chuck Hagel, who was widely regarded as a poor defence secretary somewhat overwhelmed by the job.
Washington sources suggested senior Democrats, who believed they might have a cabinet-level future under a Hillary Clinton presidency had no desire to serve in the last year of the Obama administration, which is widely seen as having been weak on defence, poor at foreign policy and ineffective in Asia. Mr Carter, these sources say, is now widely seen as the leading figure on Asia in the Obama administration.
The timing of any US operation in the South China Sea remains delicate. Mr Carter is scheduled to deliver an important address to the Shangri-La Defence Dialogue in Singapore at the end of the month. China’s President, Xi Jinping, is scheduled to visit Washington in September.
Sources suggest that a US operation would likely occur after Mr Carter’s Singapore visit but before Mr Xi’s Washington visit.
The White House has not yet made a final decision on such an operation. Any Pentagon plans supported by Mr Carter would need the President’s direct approval.
One former senior US national security official told The Australian that the recent visit to Beijing by Secretary of State John Kerry had not made any difference to the calculations involved.
“No one listens to anything he says and he says it interminably,” the official said.
So, according to this telling, assertive Ash Carter is not playing bad cop to Obama/Kerry’s good cop; he’s the whole show, which will delight fans of military control of foreign policy everywhere (note the speculation that the Pentagon leaked Carter's plans for the FoN challenge so the White House couldn't back down).
I kinda have the feeling that the muscular Asian strategy is a Campbell/Clinton play, & Carter is auditioning for reappointment as SecDef in an HRC presidency. If, as I suspect, the PRC retaliates asymmetrically in ways that require coordinated response with the White House and State Department, two civilian outfits apparently derided in the Pentagon as the bluntest tools in the shed, things could get pretty messy. But Obama and his team will take the heat & Hillary can come in and set things right, I guess.
The Australian piece, in my opinion, falls into the category of “facty” writing, a genre that looks to become increasingly unpopular as the demand swells for what I call “truthy” writing—writing that cuts through the irrelevant and distracting “facts” to focus on the essence of the PRC issue, namely the need above all to recognize and confront the PRC threat.
A fine example of the genre is Van Jackson’s discourse on anti-China discourse in The Diplomat. Jackson expresses anxiety that (my gloss) China hawks are getting picked on by America-hating panda-lickers and concludes:
As Sebastian Junger emotionally extolled, “At some point, pacifism becomes part of the machinery of death.” We need not seek conflict with China and we should cultivate empathy for its perspective, but the ironic consequence of focusing on a U.S. “anti-China” discourse and allowing Chinese assertiveness to escape from view may be a failure to balance a rising revisionist power before it’s too late.
Why so serious? Well, because the US decided it was time to make things serious.
An important Rubicon was crossed with the US campaign to complement Prime Minister Abe’s new interpretation of the “Peace” constitution with new US-Japan defense guidelines. Now Japan can support US military operations outside the traditional scope of homeland defense, and the idea of joint patrols in the South China Sea is already being tossed around.
The upgraded Japan alliance was the first salvo in what is presented as a sustained campaign of confrontation with the PRC. Second one is flying around the SCS. More to come, obviously. Much more, if the China hawks see things going their way.
Unambiguously, the US-PRC strategic relationship is officially in the sh*tter, thanks to the US decision to confront the PRC. Processing this rather unpleasant state of affairs causes considerable brainhurt among the Asianist commentariat, apparently, so there is a lot of digital ink being spilt to explain this move is purely reactive and the PRC started it with its “assertive” behavior, particularly in the South China Sea.
Orville Schell weighed in with a piece wonderfully titled “Share and Be Nice”.
The title comes from a faux-naïve question challenging PRC unwillingness to jaw-jaw on the South China Sea from a gentleman at the US Naval War College, hereinafter the “US Naval Sharing College”.
Can’t make fun of Orville Schell, though. He’s the dean of modern China scholars and has devoted his career to understanding and presenting the US-PRC relationship with objectivity and insight.
Everywhere we found officials still committed to finding ways for the two countries to work together, but all evinced a beleaguered perplexity about why China was deporting itself so pugnaciously. Indeed, almost every official expressed deep concern over the way China’s new assertiveness—some described it as “truculence”— was thwarting a more cooperative relationship, even of achieving some version of the very goal Beijing purports to desire, namely, what Xi Jinping has called a “new type of great power relationship.”
[W]e are not sure why Beijing feels compelled to act so forcefully in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea toward the Diaoyu/Sengaku Islands, against foreign media outlets operating in China, and toward critics in Hong Kong, to name only a few areas of concern. In the absence of a better explanation, most Americans interpret such Chinese actions as forms of Putin-like brinksmanship. The verité that not all the wealth and power in the world can substitute for a genuinely cooperative spirit is one that is evidently too easy to overlook. The result has been a dangerous reservoir of negative sentiment pooling up, leaving one to wonder whether Chinese officials have a realistic idea of just how disaffected their American counterparts, including non-governmental American China specialists, have actually become. Alas, China’s grave lack of straight talk and transparency makes even that question hard to answer.
Van Jackson should feel relief that the “anti-China discourse” discourse has apparently not extended into any of the fora that matter. Indeed, the entire US foreign policy establishment is apparently an “anti-China discourse”-free safe zone where experts can “all” evince “beleaguered perplexity” and voice belief in the purity of American intentions and the reality of PRC truculence without fear of intimidation, confusion, or for that matter, embarrassment.
As to why things got to this parlous state, let me try to add some facty gloss to the conundrum.
Contra the frequent invocations of the PRC’s recent lurch toward feistiness, the friction between the US and PRC predates the intimidating alpha-panda reign of Xi Jinping. The key tipping point was actually the election of Barack Obama. Inconvenient fact, but also true. Also quite understandable.
The Obama administration, and Hillary Clinton in particular, entered office with the idea of rolling back the easy geopolitical and economic gains that the PRC had stacked up in Asia, in Africa, even in the traditional Atlanticist bailiwicks of Europe and South America, since George W. Bush a) took his eye off the Asian ball with his catastrophic adventure in Iraq and b) cratered the world economy through mismanagement of the Great Derivatives Bubble of 2006 a.k.a. the Great Recession of 2007-8.
The PRC was already chesty back then, and was pushing for a bigger say in the international order. Remember, this was not the Xi years, this was the tenure of milquetoastian pasty-patsy Hu Jintao.
There were brief, very brief, rumblings that the US & PRC would come to some sort of great power condominium and order the affairs, at least of Asia, between them. It was called “G2”.
But that’s not the way it rolled. The PRC didn’t want it, Hillary Clinton didn’t want it, and her views either reflected or drove Obama administration foreign policy.
For those who, like yours truly, try to keep a close eye on US-PRC relations, it was clear that rollback had already started at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009—when Obama and Clinton infuriated the PRC with a transparent effort to isolate the PRC diplomatically from the developing world bloc.
In 2010, Secretary Clinton and the Japanese Foreign Minister, Seiji Maehara, tag-teamed to escalate the Senkaku and South China Sea frictions to issues of global importance.
And in 2010 Clinton published her famous position paper announcing the “pivot” to Asia (subsequently softened to “rebalancing”; hmm, why would we need to do that?) declaring this would be “America’s Pacific Century”. Soundbite:
[W]e are prepared to lead…Our military is by far the strongest and our economy is by far the largest in the world…So there should be no doubt that America has the capacity to secure and sustain our global leadership in this century in this century as we did in the past.
So the position is that “US moves are merely reactive responses to PRC assertiveness” is not going to get a lot of shrift from me. The US has plenty of “agency” as they say in the sociology biz, and the idea that the world’s only superpower and pre-eminent global meddler does not try to proactively shape the geostrategic battlefield in Asia…well…
Getting down to the facty nitty-gritty, I invite readers to sail over to my account, long and irritating as facty accounts tend to be, of how the US pitched in to sabotage a back-channel negotiation between Manila and Beijing over the Scarborough Shoal issue in 2010, apparently because bilateral deals between the PRC and its regional interlocutors didn‘t quite fit with the US leadership/pivot narrative.
The Philippines can expect more of the same, especially since it appears quite possible that it will elect a new president with relatively conciliatory views toward the PRC in 2016. That could put an unwelcome spoke in the wheel of the pivot, especially since I think the whole strategy is heading toward some sort of US/Japanese guardian flotilla backing unilateral Philippine development of Reed Bank hydrocarbon reserves as the first major real-world demonstration of the value of the pivot. I’m looking for the US to try to box in the new pres politically, institutionally, and in the media, mainly through working the mil-mil connection with the hawkish Philippine military, and I think it’s already happening.
But allow me to offer a measure of reassurance to the truthy.
Yes, the PRC is assertive and a bad actor. It feels it will be getting a bigger piece of the Asian pie by pushing people around than it will by sitting politely at the table and waiting for America to pass it a slice. It is not only reacting; it is acting on the worst-case assumption concerning US intentions; and it acts that way because the PRC is a nasty Commie state that lacks the political, institutional, and diplomatic flexibility to engage constructively with its neighbors, the United States, and for that matter the entire international order.
OK, everybody feel better? Good.
Unfortunately, In My Opinion the problem is that the US PRC strategy as implemented, despite the massive and well-compensated efforts of legions of experts, kinda stinks.
The South China Sea was the easiest place to get into the PRC’s grill thanks to the maritime disputes, but it was probably the wrong place. It’s a genuine core interest for the PRC; US injection in the issue heightens tensions without offering a pathway to resolution; and the benefits to regional partners from signing on to the US approach are balanced and perhaps overbalanced by the asymmetric economic, military, and diplomatic pressures the PRC can bring to bear.
As we progress from the optimism of the opening gambits to the reality of the mid-game, the actual costs/benefits…and the unintended consequences of rejiggering the security structure of East Asia and South Asia and Central Asia through serial escalation become more apparent.
And the PRC will do its best to increase the costs, minimize the benefits, and exacerbate the unfavorable consequences.
One of those undesirable consequences is, by the way, that Japan as Our Preferred Asian Partner, gets free rein to pursue its own political and diplomatic agenda which, in addition to grisly displays like Abe’s wife visiting Yasukuni (slipped that in yesterday in the midst of the SCS furor), involves pursuing its divisive zero-sum agenda vis a vis South Korea and starting to resemble Israel (loose cannon) more than the UK (woof) as an American security partner. Enjoy!
I’ll throw in the mandatory pundit’s caveat. It’s possible that the PRC will utterly misplay its hand and the US will prove to the world in no uncertain terms that China is not the master of the South China Sea.
But I think it’s equally likely that the SCS gambit will sputter along as the United States tries to herd its equivocal allies into a united front, and also try to conceal from itself and others its basic unwillingness to engage in a genuine military confrontation over a collection of atolls and sandbars thousands of miles from home.
No question of trying to conceal weakness from the PRC; they’ll be on alert to detect and exploit it.
The US rebalance toward Asia displays harbingers of a dangerous, expensive, and prolonged but unsatisfying boondoggle. Yanking the PRC’s chain for the next ten years might unleash welcome funding for the military services and the growing legion of pundits and China-centric media-ites, but create a strategic and economic incubus for the US.
Which is why I think we’re having these emotional discussions. The US is not in a particularly happy place, and it’s preferable to think the US didn’t paint itself into a corner; it was pushed there by PRC assertiveness.
So maybe some of those nagging anxieties that pundits are feeling aren’t feeding off the anti-China discourse in the ether; maybe they’re coming from inside their own heads.