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

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.

Online Course: “Educational tools for addressing the effects of war”

The Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace is offering “Betzavta” facilitators, middle school and high school educators, social activists, communal activists and those assisting refugees an online seminar to explore educational issues related to wartime.

Not only tests and masks: the history of Polish-Vietnamese mutual helpfulness

On the initiative of the Vietnamese community in Poland and Vietnamese graduates of Polish universities, our country received support from Vietnam - a country that deals with the threat posed by Sars-Cov-2 very effectively.

Book review: “GDR International Development Policy Involvement. Doctrine and Strategies between Illusions and Reality 1960-1990, The example (South) Africa”

Book review of "GDR International Development Policy Involvement. Doctrine and Strategies between Illusions and Reality 1960-1990, The example (South) Africa", written by Ulrich van der Heyden and published by Lit Verlag in 2013.

Interview: Why Does Poland Need ‘17+1’?

Interview with Michał Wójcik - Director of the Department of International Cooperation of the Ministry of Marine Economy and Inland Navigation (DWM MGMiŻŚ). In the Ministry, he is leading the  Coordinating Secretariat for Maritime Issues , monitoring the cooperation of Central and Eastern European States with China.

India, China and the Shades of Grey

"We are at an inflection point in this century. Many of our traditional arrangements are failing. To achieve stability in this century we need to discover new solutions" - Interview with Samir Saran - Senior Fellow and Vice President at the Observer Research Foundation

The Dasgupta Review on Women and the Environmental Crisis

Commissioned in 2019 by the British government and published in February 2021, The Dasgupta Review has been likened to the 2006 Stern Review. Where the latter brought to widespread attention the many failings of the world economy in the face of global warming, the former makes similar points as regards biodiversity – and identifies the unique challenges faced by women.

The unification of the two Koreas: an ASEAN perspective

The aim of the paper is to discuss the role of the ASEAN as a critical component of the solution to the Korean unification. The Korean Unification refers to the potential reunification of both Koreas into a single sovereign Korean state led by the leadership of the two Koreas.

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”.

Online Course: “Feminism and Democracy: a Deep Dive”

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.

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.

Globalization of business, education and China: interview with prof. Chiwen Jevons Lee

Interview of Ewelina Horoszkiewicz with prof. Chiwen Jevons Lee on China on globalization of Chinese business education and his thoughts of China’s role in the global marketplace.

Indian dream – interview with Samir Saran

Krzysztof Zalewski: India is a large country, both in terms of its population and its land area, with a fast-growing economy. It is perceived as a major new player on the global stage. What would the world order look like if co-organized by India? Samir Saran: India’s impact on the world order is already significant, but […]

Polish-Asian Cooperation in the Field of New Technologies – Report

Polish and Polish-founded companies are already on the largest continent in sectors such as: IT, educational technology, finance, marketing, e-commerce and space. Despite this, the potential lying dormant in the domestic innovation sector seems to be underutilized.

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.

What connects shamans and generals? On the problem of verification of internal conflicts of North Korea

The number of confirmed executions and frequent disappearances of politicians remind us that in North Korea the rules of social Darwinism apply. Any attempt to limit Kim Jong-un's power may be considered hostile and ruthless.

“May you be the mother of a thousand sons” – the status of women in Indian society

The 1950 Indian Constitution introduced the principle of equal opportunities for gender equality, which grants women and men the same rights in family life, political, social and economic life. So why is it that nearly forty per cent of girls aged 15-17 do not attend school, the custom of dowry giving is still cultivated and prenatal sex selection is still a huge social problem? 

“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.

Paweł Behrendt for 9DASHLINE: The South China Sea – from colonialism to the Cold War

We would like to inform, that 9DASHLINE has published article of Paweł Behrendt - the Boym Institute Analyst, in which he wrote about history of the South China Sea dispute over the 20th century.

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.

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.

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.

Charitable activities of the Vietnamese in Poland: their scope and sources

The scale of assistance provided to medics by the Vietnamese community during the 2020 pandemic inspires admiration and gratitude. It stems from the sense of belonging to Poland and deeply rooted in the culture order to help those in need and repay the debt incurred at the time when they themselves needed such help.

Meeting with Dr. Uki Maroshek-Klarman

It’s a great pleasure for the Boym Institute to organize an open meeting with dr Uki Maroshek who founded the betzavta method. Betzavta is taught across the globe at the Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace in Jerusalem as well as in other institutions in Europe and the Middle East.