t is easy to miss the nuanced maneuverings of the other states surrounding the South China Sea because of the giant political and diplomatic rumblings the two Great Powers of China and the United States create.

But those initiatives, while smaller and less explosive to mass media, are very important in understanding how the two Great Powers compete for attention, respect, and primacy in the region. A Reuters piece from April 2016 illustrates this effectively:

In telling the Group of Seven (G7) yesterday to butt out of its controversial maritime claims in East Asia, China has doubled down on an historic strategic blunder. Beijing’s belligerence in the South China Sea is especially imprudent. By refusing to compromise on its outrageous sovereignty claims, the government of Xi Jinping discredits its “peaceful rise” rhetoric and complicates efforts by member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to “triangulate” between China and the United States. Continued Chinese muscle-flexing will only undermine support for president Xi Jinping’s signature One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative and push regional fence-sitters into the U.S. embrace. The most promising outcome for all concerned would be a face-saving climb-down by China.

While most western media reported this as a fairly benign constructive critique of Chinese transgressions, it is important to note how many subtle digs are embedded within the critique that can be taken as a direct threat to Chinese power. Bringing up the possibility of undermining the One Belt, One Road initiative is overtly hostile, given how much time, investment, and diplomatic cache China has put into the endeavor. More importantly, until that moment events in the South China Sea and development of OBOR were never conflated together. The former was traditionally seen as military/political power-flexing, while the latter has been rather expansively characterized in terms of mutually beneficial economic development. Trying to connect the two into some sort of quid pro quo for acquiescence is likely to only incite Chinese ire rather than capitulation. This is also how the term ‘face-saving climb-down’ would be inevitably interpreted in Beijing – as acquiescence and capitulation, not as the ‘most promising outcome for all.’

Most intriguing of all was the rather tame admission that China’s maneuvers are making it more complicated for ASEAN member states to ‘triangulate’ between the United States and the People’s Republic. It is easy to glance over that phrase as insignificant but it is not: in real terms ‘triangulation’ is not so much about seeking mutually-beneficial compromise or finding resolutions to problems that let all prosper and save face. Triangulation is strategic Machiavellianism: it is the effort to play the interests of the United States off of the interests of China, trying to leverage each so as to make individual gains for the strategizing smaller country. Triangulation takes place at every level of global interaction, all the way down to the smallest local level. This is no surprise. But journalism like the piece above is somewhat disingenuous: triangulating between China and the United States is not a benign activity that carries no loss and no sacrifice. Triangulation always involves such things. And China knows this. Writing pieces that try to overlook this reality simply avoids the diplomatic space China both operates in and is not willing to be outcompeted for.

Triangulation is also not uni-directional: going only from the lesser South China Sea littorals to China or the United States. Both of the Great Powers try quite diligently to angle on the triangulation: not only trying to maximize their bilateral relations with individual ASEAN members, but also outflanking and outwitting each other. A clear example of this just happened in the fall of 2016 when Philippine President Duterte made an official visit to Beijing and shockingly declared that he was basically done with the United States and was doing his own pivot to China. The fallout from this announcement is likely to be felt for years. The Philippines, after all, was arguably one of the most vociferous opponents of China in terms of South China Sea maneuvers and most aligned with US perspectives. Even now many analysts in America are unwilling to believe Duterte was not somehow coerced to make this declaration. But this is American hubris failing to note important aspects of the South China Sea dynamic: narratives change and change often.

For example, non-Western media sources have been documenting several personal-political reasons that might have motivated Duterte before making his China visit:

  • He is convinced the United States engages important issues like human rights only in the areas that directly benefit its strategic objectives, rather than as a universal dispassionate position. There are historical examples within Philippine history itself that make Duterte convinced of this with great passion.
  • He feels strongly about a long-standing American tendency to take the Philippines for granted as ‘brown little brothers’ (a reference all the way back to President Taft), rather than as a legitimate ally deserving equal respect.
  • As Mayor of Davao City there were at least two incidents that left a diplomatic distaste in his mouth: first involved a supposed illegal extradition of an American citizen out of the Philippines by the CIA (though the Agency denies this) and second revolved around alleged mistreatment in an American airport as he transited through the United States to another country. Both instances represent to Duterte that the US does as it pleases and is ‘uneven’ in how it respects supposed allies.

This is why the positions of the competing sides in the South China Sea are not nearly as clear as the United States tries to portray it. It is not a single ‘good’ American narrative valiantly trying to push back an opposing ‘bad’ Chinese narrative. The competing narratives interact, engage, and evolve according to varying targets and objectives, sometimes on an almost daily basis. Most of the discussion of these narratives simply tackles actual military, political, and diplomatic maneuvers. Talk of island-building and weapons-systems carry the day, every day, with little attention paid to strategic theory. But strategic thinking, the disposition of philosophy, is something deeply important to China as it formulates and prioritizes its South China Sea policy. This is an area that America ironically downplays in the media while emphasizing within corridors of power. A simple analysis of strategic discussions that took place in the United States about the area, not even classified but actually public discussions accessible to all, quickly reveal why the Chinese narrative might have became obsessed with ‘defensive positioning’ within the South China Sea. That strategic analysis is the focus for part IV.

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.