Cat-and-mouse game in South China Sea carries new risks

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The recent near-collision between the USS Decatur and a Chinese Luyang-class destroyer near Gaven Reef in the South China Sea represents a dangerous escalation between the United States and China — and is likely to reopen political debate in Washington over the desirability of the U.S. Navy conducting “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) in maritime zones claimed by the Chinese.

The logic behind FONOPs is to make a clear demonstration that the United States does not recognize the “no trespassing” signs other nations erect along their coastlines, or in disputed territories, when such claims contradict treaties and norms regarding what constitutes international waters, through which the vessels of any state have a right to traverse. Based on the assessment that a claim uncontested becomes a claim ultimately recognized, FONOPs — generally the passage of naval vessels or aircraft in such contested zones — are designed to signal that the United States still considers such passages as international rights-of-way.

{mosads}For the past 20 years, there has been a complicated, unofficial version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in Southeast Asian waters. China makes a claim; the United States rejects the claim and sends in a vessel; China shadows the vessel and protests its “intrusion”; after a cat-and-mouse game, the Chinese and Americans go their separate ways unharmed. Both sides claim victory: the Chinese make a show of force emphasizing their ability to defend their claims, and the U.S. vessel’s passage demonstrates non-recognition of that claim by Washington.

What is changing is China’s willingness to perhaps do more than take symbolic action. In turn, the U.S. public — which has been content to remain blissfully ignorant about FONOPs — may push to reconsider the issue if there is a risk of significant conflict.

The U.S. national security community justifies FONOPs, and the risks the U.S. runs in conducting them, by citing the American need to uphold the rules of the liberal international order. Such rationalizations, however, are losing their persuasive power among Americans in general. Too often they sound suspiciously like America is called upon to act as the world’s policeman — a role that politicians from both sides of the aisle have strenuously denied is ever in the cards. So the politicians look for the explanations that national security experts Asha Castleberry and Simran Maker recently described as the “doorstep” or “pocketbook” implications of a foreign policy action.

In the case of FONOPs, the doorstep issue is that if China is allowed to make illegitimate claims in the South China Sea today, Beijing will have no reason not to continue to press its claims further afield. Ignoring artificial islands in the South China Sea will grow into more serious crises — a variant of the “we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here” argument. The pocketbook issue is to focus on the dangers posed by maritime exclusion zones to global commerce, intimating that the latest iPhone won’t arrive or that consumers will pay more at the pumps if America doesn’t vigorously keep the sea lanes open.

Both arguments have been losing salience in recent years. The “stopping them today before them come over tomorrow” rationale made sense when dealing with Nazis or Soviets who truly had global ambitions, but carries less weight against China’s more modest geopolitical ambitions. For many Americans, the argument to defend the global commons falls against retorts that America should produce and source its needs locally, not globally — or that while the United States pays the costs of defending the sea lanes, other states get their trade protected at American expense — a continuing version of the “freeloading allies” argument advanced by President Trump. Meanwhile, a rising progressive constituency argues that FONOPs are a way for a bloated defense establishment and military-industrial complex to justify continued spending.

In the past, as long as the missions appeared to be low-risk, there seemed little danger that the checks of such missions would be cashed by any opponent, thus alleviating a need for U.S. politicians to make a dramatic case to the American people. That has changed. The national security community must provide U.S. political leaders with enhanced arguments for continuing FONOPs and assuming the risk of a serious crisis with China.

Traditional arguments still have merit, but no longer wrap up the case as they once did. A counter-narrative emerging in American political discourse could easily retort that an energy-independent America, less dependent on global pathways for its prosperity, and an America that has retreated into a more defensive position in the Western Hemisphere, could reach some sort of modus vivendi with China about its Asian maritime claims in return for staying out of America’s own backyard.

American politicians will have to reverse statements such as those made by President Barack Obama in 2014 that “we should not be the world’s policeman.” FONOPs are grounded in the assumption that we are the world’s policeman, self-appointed to be sure, and inconsistent in when and where we choose to enforce international norms. Yet, in theory, this is a role we have taken on because we assume that America reaps clear benefits to its own security and prosperity from exercising international leadership.

To be sure, it would help if other states that benefit from America’s role in creating a global network that allows for trade and commerce would contribute more to its maintenance and defense, but Americans also must consider all the benefits, seen and unseen, that accrue from such a role. (The global role of the dollar that translates into lower energy costs, low interest rates and the ability of the United States to run “deficits without tears” is one such perk.)

This is frank talk that, so far, too few senior politicians have been willing to give to their constituents. But it needs to happen — soon. We are lucky the USS Decatur was not seriously damaged. But continuing these missions while hoping that we never have to face the loss of lives or equipment — or be prepared to escalate a response against China — is not a feasible approach. Before the next incident, it may be wise to get a mandate from the American people to continue this role, or to be prepared to scale back such missions to a level of risk the public is willing to bear.

Nikolas Gvosdev is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy’s staff college in Newport, Rhode Island, and former editor of the foreign policy journal The National Interest. The views expressed are his own.

Tags Barack Obama China–United States relations Donald Trump Freedom of navigation Law of the sea South China Sea Territorial disputes of China

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