The American Backstory

T
he American positions for the past two years have focused on China’s relatively aggressive and unchallenged construction of seven artificial islands and at least three airstrips in the South China Sea. Despite neighborly protests, China has refused to even take part in legal arbitration that was initiated in 2013 by the Philippines at a U.N.-backed tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

Chinese officials have repeatedly asserted its right to reclaim land within its own sovereign territory, while warning that the US needs to keep out of regional territorial disputes that it has no business being a part of. US President Barack Obama, while visiting Jamaica, declared that China “was using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.” The US president continued to bolster the hopes of the smaller South China Sea neighbors by staunchly stating that “just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn't mean that they can just be elbowed aside.”

Adding to the growing American alarm about China’s “aggressive” activities in the South China Sea comes from the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift. He went on record saying China was provoking an unprecedented military build-up in the region. Swift also complained that the acceleration of China’s “disruptive activities” in contested waters was causing widespread anxiety in the Indo-Pacific region. How did this widespread anxiety manifest itself? Scott emphasized that the lack of transparency around China’s behavior had caused other Asia-Pacific nations to respond by spending more on their own military build-up. Ultimately, China’s so-called defensive measures were in fact creating a runaway escalation that hindered deterrence stability rather than promoted it. In February 2016, Admiral Harry Harris of US Pacific Command, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to give testimony about events transpiring in the South China Sea, bluntly stated that China is “clearly militarizing” and the “you'd have to believe in a flat Earth to believe otherwise.”

The obvious first counterargument to President Obama’s commentary is that it seems to be ignoring what has been basic reality around the South China Sea for decades: China has not dominated the region simply because of size and sheer force but also because of its industrial, financial, diplomatic, and political prowess compared to its South China Sea neighbors. The comments from the commanders of the US Pacific Fleet also come off more like political positioning that objective analysis: no matter how much militarization or competitive force build-up is supposedly taking place within countries like the Philippines or Vietnam, it is not possible for these countries to be militarily competitive in the region with China. It is this relatively easy ability to always counter American rhetoric that gives insight into China’s formal South China Sea backstory.

The Chinese Backstory

In addition to the aforementioned perspective that China sees as ‘creeping THAADism’ and has little to do with the formally declared need to deter North Korean ambitions and aggression, US forces have been negotiating new access to as many as five Philippine military bases, with some of them strategically positioned in the disputed South China Sea. Also of great concern to Chinese military analysts are negotiations that will see new US military deployments to Australia and Singapore as supplemental parts of the Philippine plan already under way. China feels this is a disingenuous approach to bilateral diplomatic negotiation, as it has long been in discussion with the Philippines over various South China Sea disputes. Ironically, China saw Philippine entreaties to engender great American support and participation as pure manipulation, especially given that parts of the South China Sea are also currently claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. These claims have been largely ignored by the United States. While Manila has been encouraging the US to play a more active role in resisting what it regards as Chinese aggression in so-called Philippine waters, China sees it as highly suspicious that America finds only the claims of its closest military ally in the region compelling.

China not only sees America as attempting to project its global power in the South China Sea disputes. It sees the US doing this while simultaneously preaching that China should not project any regional power in waters that have always been directly impacting Chinese national interests. Thus, in a way, China is quietly characterizing itself as a victim because it claims to have never seized a single islet in the waters from others, whereas countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam have occupied Chinese islands and islets for years.

China also pressed Japan not to broach its disputes with Beijing with regional neighbors in the South China Sea at the Group of Seven summit that was held in Japan in May. It argued that touching on the issue would hamper efforts to improve bilateral relations, even somewhat ominously warning that the ‘approach’ Japan chooses to employ to address such issues will have a long-lasting impact on overall Chinese-Japanese relations. This last position is very important to the overall understanding of how China feels South China Sea disputes should be engaged and resolved: it is a local issue best negotiated by the local powers. It is a fundamental question about power disbalance and good faith negotiation: on the Chinese side, it maintains integrity and mutual respect makes ‘outside influences’ only a hindrance (read America), while on the smaller power side of South China Sea littorals, they maintain that not leveraging a bigger player for their position will leave them hopelessly subordinate (read America).

Thus, the Chinese backstory for the South China Sea, whether it is in considering the true purpose of THAAD or the ‘interference’ in individualized bilateral relations or even the philosophical meaning of regional hegemony, revolves significantly around the exercise of American power and its interplay with what China considers legitimate Chinese national security interests. This, of course, does not take place in a vacuum: there are other voices expressing opinions beyond America and China. The ‘smaller’ littoral voices of the South China Sea have their arguments. And while they are more on the side of American assistance, they are not wholly dependent on American foreign policy. This will be the subject of the upcoming part III of THAAD MAD BAD.

Dr. Matthew Crosston

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Vice Chairman of Modern Diplomacy and member of the Editorial Board at the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.

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