Provoking Beijing in the South China Sea Will Only Backfire on Washington

Bizarrely, the United States military is trying to assert freedom of navigation by dispatching U.S. ships to sail within 12 nautical miles of China-controlled territories in the South China Sea, and by flying military aircraft over those territories. On May 16, during his visit to Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly claimed that this plan is not official U.S. policy. Yet, according to a May 20 CNN report, the Pentagon is flying the P8-A Poseidon, America’s most advanced surveillance aircraft, over the artificial islands Beijing is constructing on Chinese-controlled reefs and shoals in the South China Sea. Publicizing the mission by allowing CNN onboard shows that the Pentagon is serious about their plan — and wants to shame China by exposing it to international castigation.

By confronting China’s over its land reclamation projects, the Pentagon is making clear that the United States does not recognize Chinese claims, and that it opposes Beijing’s alleged militarization of the South China Sea. Many American strategic thinkers seem to believe that so long as the United States applies enough military pressure, China will back down. But China today is no longer susceptible to U.S. coercion or bullying. Under President Xi Jinping, the more confrontational stance Washington takes, the more assertive Beijing will become in response. That’s the new reality of Chinese foreign policy.

And the Pentagon’s plan, if it were to become policy, would have the opposite effect of its intention — as happens often with ill-conceived strategic thinking. It would give China justification to regularly send naval units to the surrounding waters; to speed up the construction and installation of military facilities on the artificial islands; and to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over its territory in the South China Sea. While the Pentagon intends to prevent China from militarizing the South China Sea, its plan would instead harden China’s determination to develop its military presence in the region.

Before the Pentagon’s plan went public, China had no intention of declaring an ADIZ over the South China Sea anytime soon, said Zhou Fangyin, a professor at the Guangdong Research Institute for International Strategies. (An ADIZ extends a country’s airspace, allowing it more time to respond to foreign and possibly hostile aircraft.) The East China Sea — over which China declared an ADIZ in November 2013 — is already the site of a great power competition among China, Japan, and the United States. In April 2014, the United States committed itself to defending Japan’s claim to the Diaoyu Islands, thus officially embroiling itself in a territorial dispute between Beijing and Tokyo. But in the South China Sea, where Beijing faces several small powers, the United States is officially neutral. China is trying to manage competing claims and prevent diplomatic disputes with countries like Vietnam and the Philippines from degenerating into military conflicts.

In that sense, the involvement of the United States (and increasingly Japan) in the South China Sea is doing the region a disservice: it is changing the South China Sea into a region of great power competition between China and the United States and its allies. If Washington determines to get militarily involved in the South China Sea, Chinese planners are likely to adopt a similarly assertive logic and establish an ADIZ over territories in the region that it claims.

Of course, Chinese policymakers understand that there are many negative consequences that would come from establishing an ADIZ in the South China Sea. The scale and speed of China’s land reclamation projects have created widespread anxiety internationally, and many in the West already see China as a regional “bully.” Beijing does not want this perception to persist or grow; it cares about the reputational costs of land reclamation. As a result, Beijing has been reluctant to declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea, which the international community will surely perceive as another provocation.

But the Pentagon’s current plan and posture leaves Beijing few options. It will compel China to leave reputational considerations aside and adopt straightforward strategic assertiveness. Beyond the ADIZ designation, which China will almost certainly announce soon, Beijing will formally station naval units on it reclaimed artificial islands — which will soon be fit for military purposes, particularly Fiery Cross Reef. This probably would have happened anyway; but U.S. military involvement has considerably quickened the process — triggering a dangerous strategic competition that could have been avoided.

It’s worth asking the big question: What American interests are served by dispatching military assets to Chinese-controlled islands in the South China Sea? U.S. ships will sail around the 12-nautical mile line; U.S. aircraft will fly over the islands. China will condemn such behavior without doing anything dramatic. No one seriously expects China to attack U.S. ships or shoot down American aircraft; nor vice versa. But Beijing will be forced to consolidate its military presence over the South China Sea to please a nationalist domestic audience.

Is that really what America wants?

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About

Dr Feng Zhang (PhD, LSE) is a Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy, Asia-Pacific security, and international relations theory. He is also Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China.

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