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American-Chinese relations have become so complex that they elude the existing schemes and lack a good terminology to define them. The scale and extent of the confrontation as well as the degree of mutual connections clearly distinguish current events from the Cold War or the rivalry of the great powers of the past. Professor Zheng Yongnian from Singapore pointed out that three fields of the current conflict can be distinguished: first, the trade war fought by President Trump, the technological war led by Congress, and finally “Cold War 2.0” promoted by the Pentagon and some American analysts and publicists. All three complement each other and form part of the National Security Strategy announced in December 2017, defining China as the main challenge for the security and position of the United States. In turn, the Chinese researcher Chen Xiangmiao recently proposed the term “cold confrontation”, although only in relation to the South China Sea.
A strategic point on the map
Why has this reservoir become so important in the politics of the great powers? As a reminder, the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia are in dispute over the affiliation of the Spratly and Paracel Islands and several other reefs and atolls. All these countries are involved in economic factors, i.e. control over oil, gas and fisheries, as well as a sense of national pride and prestige. In the case of China, two factors have to be taken into account. The first is control over commercial shipping routes, which account for 60% of Chinese exports and 80% of oil imports. The South China Sea also creates a “strategic depth”, allowing for more effective defense of the southern coast of China, including the island of Hainan, where the base of atomic ships with ballistic missiles and a modern spaceport are located.
China-USA: competition in the South China Sea
For these reasons, over the past ten years, Beijing has intensified a very assertive policy in disputed waters, increased diplomatic and economic pressure on other claiming countries (primarily the Philippines and Vietnam). The next measure is the construction of artificial islands with wharves, airports and military installations. These facilities allow China to effectively extend control over the entire disputed area.
Washington drew attention to the South China Sea in the mid-1990s, but more visible actions were taken only during the presidency of Barack Obama. American actions lacked consistency and resolve. China diligently used it, efficiently realizing its goals and trying to undermine the confidence of the region’s states in the USA. Events have gained momentum after the election of Donald Trump. Even before the new cabinet was sworn in, future Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that China should be blocked from accessing the artificial islands they build. The official newspaper body of the CCP “People’s Daily” called this statement “word bombs”.
It is impossible to wipe out China from artificial islands without military action, so the US decided to demonstrate power. At the beginning, the intensity of operations of freedom of navigation (FONOP) was increased, and then exercises with allies in the waters of the South China Sea. At the turn of March and April this year, the United States conducted the annual “Balikatan” maneuvers together with the Philippines. They were important for several reasons. The Philippine phrase of Filipino certainly did not meet the expectations of President Duterte, hence the return to closer relations in the sphere of security from the US. Somewhat encouraged by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Manila, he announced that the United States would defend the Philippines if they were attacked by China. The US-Philippine Mutual Defense Agreement from 1951 is to be renegotiated. Significantly, the main object of “Balikatan 2019” was apparently the landing on the islands occupied by China. A month later, the United States and the Philippines carried out joint maneuvers with India and Japan in the South China Sea.
The “old powers” also increased their activity in the region. The United Kingdom announces that an aircraft carrier will be sent to South East Asia in the coming years. The British, the French, and the Australians began to regularly carry out their own FONOP. The Americans and allies have also intensified flights over the South China Sea. There were even opinions that Germany could join this group as well.
The Pentagon’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific region, which has been crystallizing since Obama, was announced on June 1 by Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan at the Shangri-La Dialogue Singapore conference. There was no surprise. China has been described as a revisionist power, striving in the short term for hegemony in the region and, in the long term, a global primacy. The Pentagon has calculated all the sins of Beijing, announced the continuation of FONOP and cooperation with regional allies. At the same time, Shanahan’s speech, although critical, was subdued. It is even rated as an olive branch drawn towards Beijing. However, according to unconfirmed reports in the corridors of the conference, Shanahan was supposed to hand over to China’s defense minister, Wei Fenghe, photos of the North Korean ships carried out in the waters of China. Such operations are a clear violation of the UN embargo.
If the Americans wanted to upset the Chinese delegation, they managed to achieve the goal. Wei’s speech was in sharp contact with the speech of the US secretary of defense. Some commentators even stated that China is aiming to change Shangri-La Dialogue in Shangri-La Monologue. Wei decidedly and sharply, almost arrogantly, rejected all charges against Beijing. Moreover, he presented the Tiananmen massacre and the persecution of the Uyghurs as legitimate and even beneficial actions. David Capie from the Australian University of Victoria described Wei’s speech as the speech of “the Minister of State of a certain position in the region,” although other states do not necessarily think so.
US operations are also beginning to take on a non-military character. A major problem in the South China Sea is China’s use of numerous paramilitary formations, from coast guards to sea militias. This enables Beijing to freely graduate from the pressure and conduct activities in the “gray zone”, which reduces the risk of escalation. The inclusion of the coast guard in the People’s Armed Police in 2018 gave another advantage in the form of better coordination of activities with the militias and the navy. For several years, there have been voices that the best response to such actions would be not sending more destroyers under FONOP and referring to disputed waters of the US Coast Guard.
The demands were partly met this spring, when USTB Bertholf was directed to Sasebo in Japan. The task of the cutter was to supervise the embargo on North Korea, however, along with the destroyers of the US Navy, they would sail through the Taiwan Strait twice. According to some analysts, this could have been attempts to create mixed navy teams and coast guards. The possibility of the emergence of such groups, or the start of independent operations in the South China Sea by the US Coast Guard is taken in China with concern. This would mean a more even control over the escalation ladder, thus increasing the pressure on Beijing.
“South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act”
Interesting events are also taking place in Congress. Senators Mark Rubio (Republican) and Ben Cardin (Democrat) introduced the “South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act” to the senate. The bill provides for sanctions for individual citizens of the PRC and Chinese companies involved in the construction of artificial islands and their facilities, as well as in “illegal and dangerous” activities undertaken by China in the areas of the East China Sea, claimed by Japan and South Korea. If the law came into force, the state department would be obliged to submit to the Congress every six months a list of persons and enterprises involved in such activities. The proposed sanctions include the withdrawal or refusal of visas to the USA.
“South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act” is not new. It appeared for the first time in 2017, but it did not leave the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Currently, the bill enjoys the growing support of senators and congressmen from both parties. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has criticized the draft laws stating that it violates the “basic norms of international law”. He also called for “not introducing new disturbances in the Sino-American relationship”.
China, the USA, and the countries of Southeast Asia
In fact, the American engagement in the South China Sea should be seen in the context of not the dispute between China and the countries of South East Asia, and as part of Washington’s wider response to the challenge of Beijing. The current situation is the sum of the mistakes made by both parties over the last twenty years. The US’s lack of reaction to the first actions drastically emboldened Beijing and encouraged Chinese decision-makers to abandon the strategy of “avoiding and achieving goals with small steps” recommended by Deng Xiaoping. The concentration of the attention of the United States in the Middle East had very far-reaching consequences. China gained great freedom of action in its immediate vicinity, which made it possible to make the South China Sea an important element of nationalist propaganda and the CCP’s built narrative of the “Great Rebirth of the Chinese Nation” and a rematch for the colonial period. Thus, any concession or defeat in disputed waters means Beijing’s loss of face and undermining the mandate to exercise power.
American decision makers are probably very well aware of this and carefully differentiating the pressure exerted on China. It is worth noting that the diplomatic appearance of Shanahan in Singapore occurred shortly after the breakdown of trade negotiations. The game between the US and the PRC is currently at the highest rate. For this reason, what one party considers a good compromise for the other is unacceptable, and as demonstrated by the Economist in a trade conflict, both countries make the decisions that hurt the opponent and themselves the most. The South China Sea may, however, be more dangerous than a trade war. With the increase in the number of countries sending their ships into this inflammatory region, the risk of escalation and the situation getting out of control increases. The countries of the region perfectly feel the thickening atmosphere. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has asked several times over the past few months that the United States and China would not force smaller states to choose and party on one side.
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