Analyses

China – USA in the South China Sea

The trade war is just one of the problems of confrontation between the United States and the People's Republic of China. Many aspects of this competition coincide in the South China Sea.

Instytut Boyma 01.07.2019

Zdjęcie przedstawiające statki pod amerykańską banderą na morzu południowochińskim

The publication has been automatically translated. If you want to read texts translated professionally, please make a donation and help us develop the institute.

*

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.

 

American commitment

 

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.

 

The publication was created thanks to the financial support of the CSPA.

Paweł Behrendt

Analyst on Security and East Asia (China and Japan). PhD candidate at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Vienna. Major areas of interest include: foreign and defence policy of Japan and China, international relations and security in East Asia, conflicts in Asia. Author of books "Chińczycy grają w go" and "Korzenie niemieckich sukcesów w Azji”, as well as several dozens of articles on history and security issues in Asia published in Poland and abroad.

czytaj więcej

Women’s liberation in China: interview with prof. Wu Lijuan

Interview of Ewelina Horoszkiewicz with prof. Wu Lijuan - Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology at Peking University. Her research concentrates on the gender issues and social changes brought about by globalization. She wrote a book “Job Placements and Job Shifts in China: The Effects of Education, Family Background and Gender”.

The Boym Institute message to Indian policymakers and analysts

India’s current position towards the Russian invasion on Ukraine may damage its reputation as a major force of peace in the world

We’re Stronger Together – an Interview with Minister Marcin Przydacz

"Cooperation and investments – we are absolutely up for it. However, we prefer to keep a certain degree of caution when it comes to entrusting the transfer of technology and critical infrastructure to external investors. The security of Poland and the EU should be considered more important than even the greatest economic gains..."

Chinese work on the military use of artificial intelligence

Intensive modernization and the desire to catch up with the armed forces of the United States made chinese interest in the military application of futuristic technologies grow bigger.

Patrycja Pendrakowska for Balkan Development Support: “Western European countries have benefited most from the Chinese capital, the benefits are mutual”

We would like to inform, that Financial Intelligence has published interview for Balkan Development Support with Patrycja Pendrakowska.

Patrycja Pendrakowska for Observer Research Foundation: “Managing fear and easing lockdown in Poland”

We would like to inform, that Observer Research Foundation has published article of Patrycja Pendrakowska - the Boym Institute Analyst and President of the Board.

Foreign Direct Investment in Vietnam

Thanks to continuous economic development, Vietnam attracts a record number of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The catalyst for such a strong growth of FDI in Vietnam is not only the ongoing trade war between the US and China, but also new international agreements.

Why We Need Women in Politics, or the Scandal Solved Successfully in Uzbekistan with a Polish Woman in the Leading Role

Polish women do not often become the heroines of media reports in Central Asia. In February 2020, however, it was different. The story of Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, a journalist, "heated up" the headlines of local news portals. More importantly, "between the lines" she talked a lot about contemporary Uzbekistan and the role of women in politics.

San Zhong Zhanfa or Three Warfares. Chinese Hybrid Warfare

Cognitive operations are becoming an increasingly significant and common element of non-kinetic military operations. States and other political players deliberately manipulate the way their actions, those of their allies and those of their adversaries are perceived by the governments and societies of other international players.

Online Course: “Conflict Resolution and Democracy”

The course will be taught via interactive workshops, employing the Adam Institute’s signature “Betzavta – the Adam Institute’s Facilitation Method“, taught by its creator, Dr. Uki Maroshek-Klarman. The award-winning “Betzavta” method is rooted in an empirical approach to civic education, interpersonal communication and conflict resolution.

Historical vs Current Emissions: Towards an Ethical and Political Synergy in International Climate Policy

Environmental problems transcend not only national borders but also historical periods. And yet debates on the necessary measures and timelines are often constrained by considerations of election cycles (or dynastic successions) in any given country.

Development Strategies for Ulaanbaatar According to the Conception for the City’s 2040 General Development Plan – Part 2

This is the second part of an inquiry into Ulaanbaatar’s winning 2040 General Development Plan Conception (GDPC). In this part of paper, I look into some of the plans and/or solutions proposed in Ulaanbaatar’s 2040 GDPC.

TSRG 2021: The Impacts of the BRI on Europe: The Case of Poland and Germany

It is important to contribute to the understanding of what the New Silk Road can mean in economic, political, leadership and cultural terms for the European countries involved. This analysis should reveal the practical consequences of the Belt and Road Initiative for Europe in the case of Poland and Germany, as well as their respective social effects.

Roman Catholic cemetery in Harbin (1903-1958)

First burials of Catholics, mostly Poles but also other Non-Orthodox believers took place in future Harbin in the so called small „old” or later Pokrovskoe Orthodox cemetery in the future European New Town quarter and small graveyards at the military and civilian hospitals of Chinese Eastern Railway at the turn of XIX and XX century.

Book review: “Europe – North Korea. Between Humanitarianism And Business?”

Book review of "Europe – North Korea. Between Humanitarianism And Business?", written by Myung-Kyu Park, Bernhard Seliger, Sung-Jo Park (Eds.) and published by Lit Verlag in 2010.

Online Course: “Free Speech, Incitement and Hate Speech and their relevance in Poland’s political discourse and landscape” with Dr. Uki Maroshek-Klarman

The Adam Institute invites you to join us for a new engaging course, tailored to participants from Poland, taught on ZOOM.

Book review: “Unveiling the North Korean economy”

Book review of "Unveiling the North Korean economy", written by Kim Byung-yeon and published by Cambridge University Press in 2016.B. Tauris in 2017.

Women’s change in Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has embarked on a path of reform. Almost daily, the media there report on new initiatives and projects. It is no coincidence that in December 2019 The Economist awarded Uzbekistan the country of the year title.

Indonesia – between religion and democracy

Indonesia is the largest Muslim democracy in the world. Approximately 88% of the population in Indonesia declares Islamic religion, but in spite of this significant dominance, Indonesia is not a religious state.

A Story of Victory? The 30th Anniversary of Kazakh Statehood and Challenges for the Future.

On 25 May 2021, the Boym Institute, in cooperation with the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, organised an international debate with former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski (1995-2005).

“Green growth” may well be more of the same

Witnessing the recent flurry of political activity amid the accelerating environmental emergency, from the Green New Deal to the UN climate summits to European political initiatives, one could be forgiven for thinking that things are finally moving forward.

Coronavirus outbreak in Poland – General information and recommendations for entrepreneurs

Kochański & Partners and the Boym Institute engaged in delivering information about latest after-effects of COVID-19 pandemia, which has begun to spread in Poland during the past days.

Transcultural Winter School 2021 (8th of November — 12th of November)

This year’s research project TSRG 2021 as a collaborative initiative between Leadership Excellence Institute Zeppelin and the Boym Institute continued with a Transcultural Winter School in Zeppelin University, in Friedrichshafen.

Young Indo-Pacific: Forward-looking perspectives on the EU Indo-Pacific Strategy

The Boym Institute, working with other think tanks, organizes panel discussions on topics related to the European Union's Indo-Pacific strategy