South China Sea and China’s maritime assertiveness — Sitting on the fence is a good option for Asian countries right now

There’s no need to choose between America and China for now, as China lacks the wherewithal to challenge US supremacy

By William Choong For The Straits Times

Tensions in the Asia-Pacific have escalated over the past several years, primarily as a consequence of China’s maritime assertiveness and the responses of other Asian states and the United States. This has raised fears that South-east Asian states might be forced to “take sides” between the Asia-Pacific’s two great powers – China and the US.

Singapore was given special prominence last week. China’s Global Times newspaper, well known for its nationalistic tirades, singled Singapore out for – so the paper claimed – seeking to include a mention in a communique issued by the Non-Aligned Movement in Venezuela of the landmark July 12 decision by a Hague-based arbitration tribunal on the South China Sea. Singapore, according to the paper, had “already taken sides” by blowing up the issue on the international stage. (Singapore has denied that it raised the issue.)

And writing in these pages last week, Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, argued that Asian countries needed to avoid choosing between supporting “flawed American policy” that offers little hope of stability in the Sino-US relationship and failing to support the US, thereby risking an American withdrawal from the region. He suggested a third possibility: talking to the US about how “we” see things in Asia and “the approach we would like the US to take”.

China and the US seem increasingly to view each other as adversaries in the Asia-Pacific, in key issues such as the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the deployment of Thaad, an advanced US missile defence system, in South Korea. The view is that China, a rising power, might attempt to displace US predominance in the region.


While Prof White’s outlined choices seem compelling, an uneasy truce between China and the US may prevail for some time yet. As a result, Asian countries can probably afford to continue sitting on the fence.

Granted, China has important long-term goals in the Asia-Pacific – the reintegration of Taiwan and Chinese sovereignty over the South China and East China seas. These goals cannot be achieved under US primacy.

The guided missile destroyer USS Mustin during a training exercise in the South China Sea with Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force ship JS Kirisame this year. Even if China sought to mount a challenge to US power in the region, it would probably not have the military wherewithal to do so effectively. Reuters photo

In pursuing such goals, however, China is not – or at least not yet – seeking to displace America. China’s island-building in the South China Sea represents an attempt to change the rules that underpin the present US-led regional order. Beijing is in the business of winning friends across the region, in the form of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, its One Belt One Road initiative and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The logic is straightforward – to offer economic incentives to US formal allies and security partners, such that when push comes to shove, they would side with China.

While China uses its economic strength to lure Asian states to its side, an overt Chinese challenge to American primacy is unlikely for now, as it would be akin to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. In his 2015 book The China Challenge, US academic Thomas Christensen argues persuasively that there has been “no greater beneficiary” of the existing order than China. In 2006, foreign value-added already stood at half the value of China’s manufactured exports. A third of the foreign direct investment entering China came from the US, its allies and security partners in Asia.

A Chinese challenge – which would risk war with the US and have massive consequences for China’s economy – would have a “catastrophic effect” on the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to generate the jobs that legitimise its rule.

Even if China sought to mount such a challenge, it would probably not have the military wherewithal to do so effectively. China’s military spending has been growing steadily for many years, but a 2010 report by the US Department of Defence said that, even after a decade of investment, less than 30 per cent of the People’s Liberation Army’s surface forces and air forces, and 40 per cent of its air defence forces, could be considered “modern”.

A more accurate representation of Sino-American relations in the Asia-Pacific would be a triptych: Asian countries refusing to make stark choices between the two great powers; a calculation that US power will not wane, let alone be withdrawn from the region; and the earnest hope that the two powers can reach a working accommodation (though not on the scale that Prof White proposes).

A Sino-US working arrangement to recognise China’s greater role is possible. As Mr Michael Swaine at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment argues, some “strategic understandings” could involve neutralisation at points of contention, such as Korea, Taiwan and the South China Sea. In the South China Sea, this could involve the US showing it has “little if any” direct interest in interactions between disputants, and supporting a binding Code of Conduct. The US should avoid “staking its credibility” on ensuring a non-coercive process is followed in every instance. In exchange, China can declare that the area within the nine-dash line is open ocean.


Ultimately, stability in Sino-US relations in the Asia-Pacific is built on two denials. First, the denial of the Thucydides trap, where a rising power challenges a status quo power.

Second, Asian countries can deny the need to choose between the US and China, by balancing the need to derive economic and political gains from a strong relationship with China, with the need to respond to the security challenges posed by China.

Singapore is a classic example. While Singapore has a positive view of America’s regional role and has developed deep military relations with the US, it has not chosen to take part in any bid to “contain” China. Rather, Singapore’s expression of the need to uphold international law and the July tribunal judgment is an expression of high principles – principles that will in the long run protect small states in a Hobbesian world.

Likewise, Australia was singled out as a “paper cat” by the Global Times for joining Japan and the US in upholding a “rules-based maritime order” in the region following the July judgment. Still, Australia, a formal ally of the US which lists China as its top trading partner, has not chosen to take any sides.

And for all the pressure that Vietnam has received from China over their Paracels dispute, Hanoi has not severed all links with Beijing and turned to Washington. Rather, it has intensified its multi-directional diplomacy by building up ties with Japan, Russia and the US.

(In his 2012 work, The China Choice, Prof White envisions the US ceding Indochina to China as its “sphere of influence”. One can only imagine what the Vietnamese, and other South-east Asians for that matter, would think about such a proposition being offered over their heads. The Vietnamese pride themselves on having claimed the scalps of three big powers in the 20th century – France, the US and China, in that order.)

It is possible that the Barack Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia will endure under a Hillary Clinton presidency. Mrs Clinton is deemed to be a China hawk, having challenged Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea in 2010. And although Mrs Clinton now opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a senior American diplomat told me recently that she would find a face-saving way for the US to get a better deal under the TPP and hence push through ratification.

No one really knows what would pan out under Mr Donald Trump. While he has said he would act tough towards China on economic issues, his position on strategic issues is murky. He has called for the lifting of budget caps on military spending and has vowed to hit back at China if it attacks the ships of American allies. But, at the same time, he has called for a withdrawal of US forces from Asia – a move that would overturn the US-led regional order.

There is a possibility that the centre might not hold, such that Asian countries would be forced to choose between China and the US. As a senior US Navy officer says, countries like Singapore are adept at walking the tightrope between China and the US; unfortunately, the tightrope is getting narrower. And it only takes a trigger-happy frontline military commander to start a Sino-American confrontation in the South China Sea.

Notwithstanding such challenges, China, the US and Asian countries will have to muddle along in the search for stability, without the Asians having to make binary choices. Binary choices are born in the world of theory, but in the real world, choosing not to make a choice is not a bad thing.


Dr William Choong, a former Straits Times journalist, is Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2016, with the headline ‘Sitting on the fence is a good option for Asian countries’.

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One Response to “South China Sea and China’s maritime assertiveness — Sitting on the fence is a good option for Asian countries right now”

  1. daveyone1 Says:

    Reblogged this on World Peace Forum.

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