Yellow Light Deterrence: Poor American Strategy in the South China Sea

In 2001, in response to an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreement with China regarding conduct in the South China Sea, Odgaard (2001) optimistically described the cooperation as the beginning of a “new order”. Odgaard remarked that, “The dispute highlights differences in the approach of the two entities to the balance of power, diplomacy, and international law…[and] the seeds of a new order emerge, representing a compromise between the security practices employed by China and Southeast Asia” (Odgaard, 2001, p. 292). As recent events have demonstrated, Odgaard weighted a liberal approach to the dispute too heavily, and China’s rising economic status has tipped the scales in its favor, allowing it to ignore ASEAN’s deterrence coalition.

In 2015 Castro contrasted China’s power politics approach against the Philippines liberal-legal strategy. Castro (2015) concluded that the Philippine government lacks military credibility to back diplomatic negotiations. Castro likens the China-Philippines relationship to the ancient Thucydides maxim that, “The strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept.” Castro is both descriptive and analytical in his approach to the conflict. He asserts that in the absence of US intervention, the Philippines must rely on a legal strategy to balance power. This is a reference to the Philippine government’s formal complaint to the International Tribunal over China’s incursion into its territorial waters. Castro describes the Obama administration as supportive but noncommittal, citing US reluctance to trigger confrontation with China, a major economic partner. Describing the consequences of the dispute, Castro writes “…small powers have a low level of participation in world affairs and might find it detrimental to their interest to engage in risky and expensive foreign policy undertakings such as balancing (De Castro, 2015, p. 71). This statement is particularly relevant because of its transference to other Spratly claimants that oppose China’s claims, but are reluctant to act.

Betts (2013) describes Washington’s foreign policy toward China as “ambivalent deterrence: rhetorical bobbing and weaving rather than strategic planning. It is a dangerous practice, projecting provocation and weakness at the same time. Washington signals Beijing not to occupy the various islands but does not threaten to block it from doing so, even while assuring Tokyo that the [US] is treaty-bound to defend the islands” (Betts, 2013). Betts provides the most substantive analysis identifying underlying factors that have led to escalation of the conflict and to deterioration of the US-China relationship. Betts (2013) writes, “With regard to China, Washington is torn about whether or not to rely on deterrence at all—such confusion could lead to…dangerous miscalculation in Beijing” (Betts, 2013).

According to Betts, there are only two possibilities with regard to a US-China policy: “a clear commitment to contain China, meaning that Washington would block Beijing from expanding its territory through either military action or political coercion” or “accommodation-in effect, a green light” (Betts, 2013). Without clear signaling, however, Washington “invites Chinese leaders to see the United States as a paper tiger that may fold in an escalating crisis” (Betts, 2013). Betts points to this as a danger for both sides, citing the invasion of South Korea as an example in which the US responded unpredictably by choosing war. According to Betts, US deterrence is out of focus and must be an essential component of strategy. “U.S. policy now amounts to a yellow light, a warning to slow down, short of a firm requirement to stop. Yellow lights, however, tempt some drivers to speed up” (Betts, 2013).

China has certainly hastened its territorial expansion in the Spratly Chain, leaving some to question the rapid shift. Taffer’s 2015 conceptual analysis of China’s policy in the South China Sea offers some insight. Taffer suggests that “a state in a territorial dispute can pursue one of three general strategies: threaten or use force; offer territorial concessions; or delay”, and that these strategies need not be “mutually exclusive” (Taffer, 2015, p. 85). Taffer’s thesis lends credence to the idea that China’s actions since 2001, including its agreement with ASEAN members and claims that outposts are for peaceful non-military purposes, are part of a delay tactic designed slow the progress of other claimants until China can exert the force needed to secure territory. China’s rapid reclamation may also be an effort to solidify claims before a change in US administrations.

Given the possibility that China is misrepresenting its intentions, and the US is sending mixed signals, Fearon’s 1997 work on communicating foreign policy interests is very relevant. Fearon describes two approaches which may be used to signal vital interests as part of grand strategy or crisis diplomacy. According to Fearon, “Leaders might either (a) tie hands by creating audience costs that they will suffer ex post if they do not follow through on their threat or commitment…or (b) sink costs by taking actions such as mobilizing troops that are financially costly ex ante” (Fearon, 1997, p. 68). A significant problem with Washington’s South China Sea policy is that it does not clearly articulate any vital interests, ie, something it is willing to fight over. Fearon writes, “…since 1991 the bigger problem in U.S. foreign policy has been to decide whether the United States has any vital interests abroad in this sense, rather than how to signal what they are to potential aggressors” (Fearon, 1997, p. 69). Fearon describes tying hands as an approach that includes public statements such as “This will not stand” during a crisis, and “alliance treaties insofar as these work by engaging a state’s domestic or international reputation…” (Fearon, 1997, p. 70). Fearon’s work does much to clarify why Washington’s approach is ineffective, and to suggest a remedy. The US is not sending a clear enough signal. There is ample evidence to suggest that Washington recognizes the aggregate threat posed by Chinese military bases in the South China Sea which constitute a vital interest because of their ability to interrupt the flow of global commerce and energy supply routes. It is far safer for Washington to express freedom of navigation as its primary concern because there is no “audience costs that the leadership would suffer due to the perceived failure” (Fearon, 1997, p. 70). Unless China suddenly decides to implement a complete South China Sea anti-access strategy, which it is unlikely to try at the moment, these limited and unimpressive American initiatives are somewhat impotent.

Fuhrmann & Sechser, (2014) build upon Fearon’s work by exploring the effects of signaling alliance commitments in extended nuclear deterrence situations. While the US does not yet refer to the conflict in the South China Sea as a threat to an alliance member, it is important to point out that a US-Philippine mutual defense treaty has been in effect since 1951, and that China is currently constructing bases inside Philippine-claimed territory. Fuhrmann & Sechsers point out that failure to establish credibility “can be costly for all sides” (Fuhrmann & Sechser, 2014, p. 921). Fuhrmann & Sechsers’ research reveals that “…alliance commitments from nuclear states reduce the risk of being targeted in a militarized dispute. They found hand-tying to be even more effective than Fearon’s initial research. They concluded that, “hand-tying proclamations of alliance commitments by nuclear states significantly strengthen general deterrence and prevent challenges against protégés” (Fuhrmann & Sechser, 2014, p. 932).

Academic and theoretical research leads to the conclusion that the US has failed to identify the vast shipping lanes of the South China Sea as a vital interest. As a result of this failure, Washington has been unable to clearly articulate its position to Beijing, effectively “yellow lighting” construction of military outpost in disputed territory. The US has also failed to affirm through diplomatic signaling its mutual defense commitments to Japan and the Philippines. Despite Fearon’s (1997) assertion that tying-hands “generate[s] a greater risk of war”, that is the course of action which is most likely to deter further Chinese territorial expansion and stabilize the region.