Stupid Sh*t: US Failure, Denial, and Escalation in the South China Sea
By most metrics the US campaign to deter and modify PRC behavior in the South China Sea has been a colossal bust.
The US “Freedom of Navigation” initiative for the South China Sea is, to put it bluntly, completely bogus. The PRC has no interest in impeding the movement of ships in the South China Sea and the US Navy, when it goes into the region to engage in its ostensibly confrontational high risk FONOPs, is simply pushing against Jell-O. The PLAN stays out of the way and lets them sail around.
In early March, the United States sailed a carrier battle group through the South China Sea and flew 226 sorties. Chinese response: Meh.
The second leg of the US maritime “lawfare” strategy, the Philippine arbitration gambit—using arbitration under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea a.k.a. UNCLOS to repudiate the PRC “Nine-Dash-Line” claim to maritime sovereignty over the South China Sea--is probably not going to yield any stunning victories. China has categorically announced it will ignore the ruling, UNCLOS has no enforcement mechanism and, even if the US wanted to step up and do the job on UNCLOS’ behalf, it’s not even a signatory to UNCLOS. Awkward.
And the PRC has funneled billions it might have spent elsewhere into securing its position as the dominant national presence across large swaths of the South China Sea through island building, island development, and expansion of its coast guard fleet.
It should have been realized from the beginning that the US maritime gambit in the South China Sea—conceived by Kurt Campbell, indefatigably promoted by Hillary Clinton as the cornerstone of her “screw the Chinese” excuse me, “smart power in Asia” policy and, for obvious reasons, passionately adored by the United States Navy—was headed for failure.
The PRC had never treated the South China Sea as exclusive territory. Free military and civilian air and sea traffic through the region was always a PRC national priority given the relative weakness of its own navy and air force. For the last thirty years, the PRC’s precarious island/atoll/outpost claims had coexisted with the precarious island/atoll/outpost claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan without military clashes.
Friction was largely confined to resource exploitation: hydrocarbon reserves and fishing operations, with the PRC behaving rather d*ckishly either to exploit these opportunities exclusively or to strongarm its weaker neighbors into cooperation on terms favorable to the PRC.
When Vietnam and the Philippines moved to bring their territorial waters/EEZ claims in line with UNCLOS, theoretically the PRC resource claims were at risk: neighboring countries’ EEZ claims could chew up most of the South China Sea, leaving the PRC shut out of potentially lucrative oil, gas, and fishing plays.
Practically, as opposed to theoretically, is another matter.
The key to the South China Sea has never been its waters. It’s the islands, the atolls, the shoals, the Low Tide Elevations (LTEs). I, for one, already saw signs of the PRC considering migration to a UNCLOS-derived if not compliant island sovereignty basis for its South China Sea claims a few years back.
The PRC can retreat to its hodgepodge of island, atoll, and LTE holdings, assert territorial sea and EEZ claims around them, and put itself in a position in which it could maliciously complicate the enjoyment of the Philippines and Vietnam of their EEZ privileges if and when the Nine-Dash-Line was invalidated.
And the US has got nuttin’ for that. The US doesn’t take positions on sovereignty of landmasses. It hasn’t even acknowledged Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus/Daioyutai Islands, even as it places them under the aegis of the US-Japan Security Treaty as Japanese holdings to be protected against Chinese attack. The US advocates for the status quo. All it can do is issue non-binding calls for moratoriums on island-related stuff--which are largely ignored.
The Chinese realizes this, and have rooted their position in the South China Sea on digging in on the islands etc. they already occupy.
Indeed, ever since the SCS issue has hotted up, PRC official rhetoric has keyed on “territorial sovereignty” not “maritime sovereignty”. And, on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress this year, Foreign Minister Wang Yi redrew the line:
The Nansha Islands are China's integral territory. Every Chinese has an obligation to defend them. China has not and will not make any new territorial claims.
China was the first country to discover, name, develop and administer the South China Sea islands. Our ancestors lived and worked there for generations, so we know and love the place more than anyone else. And more than anyone else, we want to uphold peace, stability and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
History will prove who is a mere visitor and who is the real host.
Wang’s asperity in the last line is perhaps attributable to the fact that, while the US foreign policy commentariat expends much righteous spittle concerning the vital need for America to drive events in the South China Sea, it apparently knows and understands little about the actual issues involved. The most recent illustration was the empty hubbub over the surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, which the US foreign policy/media combine maliciously or ignorantly conflated into a repudiation of Xi Jinping’s “pledge” not to militarize the Spratly Islands--500 miles away.
Looks small on a map, folks, but it’s a big sea. Would cover most of western Europe.
If anything, the Philippine arbitration challenge to the Nine-Dash-Line served only to intensify the PRC island project. Instead of engaging in endless jaw-jaw with Manila, the PRC went overtly and defiantly unilateral: it has physically grown its islands, poured resources into their development to make the territorial claims appear irrevocable, and integrated them into its national infrastructure without reference to the interests or sensibilities of the Philippines.
And it has placed itself in a position to claim, unilaterally, EEZs around those faux islands, as Japan did with its notorious Okinotoroshima boondoggle, a 200 nautical mile EEZ encircling two uninhabitable, not long for above water existence eroding rocks the size of a couple of station wagons—until the Japanese government secured them with an investment of over half a billion dollars.
If the PRC exacts the ultimate price tag for the Philippine insistence on pursuing arbitration—by geo-engineering the Scarborough Shoal that it currently occupies into a permanent PRC territorial presence (PRC ships currently control maritime access to the fishing grounds)—the Philippine government may begin to question the wisdom of poking a finger in the PRC’s eye by going for arbitration (and, I suspect, by acceding to US sabotage of Philippine bilateral negotiations with the PRC over the shoal in 2012).
It was expected from the beginning that the PRC would never honor the result of the arbitration commission. Now the implications—including the prospect of prolonged economic estrangement between the PRC and the Philippines-- are starting to sink in.
China containment strategists are perhaps taking another look at the Aegean Sea dispute as a precedent for the South China Sea. It’s been a frozen conflict between Turkey and Greece for the last 30 years. Nobody touches the islands; nobody interferes with navigation; nobody cares. The PRC would be happy with such an outcome, even if it involves the US Navy sailing around every few weeks on another FONOP.
Perhaps that is why the pro-arbitration forces led by Supreme Court Associate Justice and architect of the Philippine case, Antonio Carpio, are anxiously calling for all candidates for the Philippine presidency to declare their undying loyalty to the arbitration approach before the elections even happen, for fear that a new president may decide to ditch insistence that the PRC adhere to the arbitration outcome in favor of some kind of bilateral workout.
To render assistance, US advocates of the pivot have overtly stuck their fingers in the Philippine political pie.
Ground zero for the SCS strategy in Washington is the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I can’t say its staked its reputation on the success of the South China Sea strategy (if a US geostrategic gambit fails, it’s inevitably not the fault of the think tank that conceived and promoted it), but for CSIS it’s spelled $C$ if you get my drift: money and clout.
Confirming the hand-in-glove relationship between Philippine and US champions of the arbitration process, CSIS’s Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative echoed Carpio’s declaration by issuing a desperate (and, given the supposedly apolitical character of UNCLOS proceedings) rather awkward call for the arbitration panel to hand down its ruling during Aquino’s presidency so whoever succeeds him after the May elections would have to eat the cake that had already been baked:
The timing of the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the Philippines’ case against China’s nine-dash-line claims has critical geopolitical implications for Asia’s security. Specifically, a decision delivered well before the Philippine presidential election this May would allow the administration of President Benigno Aquino to respond strategically and with continuity, whatever the outcome
A decision delivered after May would in effect roll the dice by putting a new leadership team in Manila in charge of managing the court’s determination.
If the decision is released and a new administration ignores it to pursue the bilateral negotiations that China has demanded all along, it decreases the incentive for other small nations to turn to international law and arbitration. If the Philippines didn’t get anything out of pursuing its case, why should Vietnam or Malaysia follow in the future?
Anxiety in US pivot-land was further expressed in a David Ignatius op-ed in the Washington Post. It employed the classic “that guy over there is responsible for the problems with my strategy” ploy in faithfully transcribing pivot-pappy Kurt Campbell’s spin on why his South China Sea had accelerated instead of deterred PRC adventurism and we’re headed for “a dangerous showdown”:
What makes this dispute so explosive is that it pits an American president who needs to affirm his credibility as a strong leader against a risk-taking Chinese president who has shown disregard for U.S. military power and who faces potent political enemies at home.
“This isn’t Pearl Harbor, but if people on all sides aren’t careful, it could be ‘The Guns of August,’ ” says Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for Asia, referring to the chain of miscalculations that led to World War I. The administration, he says, is facing “another red line moment where it has to figure out how to carry through on past warnings.”
“You don’t want the Chinese to lose face,” says Campbell. “But you want their leadership to understand that if they continue along this path, they risk spiraling the relationship into a very negative place.”
As can be seen, the “other guy” is not just Xi Jinping, who refused to bow before the majesty of the pivot er, excuse me, rebalancing to Asia. It’s Barack Obama, whose reservations about the utility of FONOPs is a byword in Washington, and whose skepticism concerning Clinton-derived foreign policy was memorably characterized as “who exactly is in the stupid sh*t caucus? Who’s in favor of doing stupid sh*t?”.
The strategy hasn’t delivered. Do we admit the strategy isn’t delivering? No, we blame the other guys and, of course, try to escalate ourselves out of our embarrassment. And we put the onus on the current US president for being a wimp if he doesn’t go along. And pin our hopes on the incoming president (Hillary Clinton, it looks like), who is irrevocably committed to pursuing the confrontational policy (since she is its public face and terminally mistrusted by the PRC as a result), to keep the ball rolling.
Campbell’s convo with Ignatius actually looks like an interesting US recapitulation of the Philippine move to push escalation, encourage China hawks, sideline the skeptics, and lock in the policy pre-emptively to sidetrack growing doubts that might complicate transition into a new administration. Great minds think alike, I guess (and lesser minds club together to connive at mutually beneficial logrolling).
And the possibility that the PRC will island-build the Scarborough Shoal and occupy it—thereby removing it from the maritime realm and into the safe haven of an irresolvable territorial dispute—has apparently given Kurt Campbell the willies.
My favorite line from the Ignatius piece was:
[T]he White House has an intense interagency planning process underway to prepare for the looming confrontation. Options include an aggressive tit-for-tat strategy, in which the United States would help countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam build artificial islands of their own in disputed waters.
I would like to think President Obama turned to Campbell (or whatever pivot-friendly worthy who contributed this brainwave) and said, “So we should have been building islands all along? Really? Like the Chinese? So what we’ve been doing for the last five years, the whole maritime strategy with the Navy, the FONOPs, the UNCLOS? Wait, don’t tell me. IT WAS STUPID SH*T!”