Rising Bipolarity in the South China Sea

CSP_Blog_2016_05_Burgess_02Despite soft-balancing by the United States and its pivot to Asia, China is likely to continue its expansionist policies in the South China Sea.

The first four years of the US rebalance to Asia have witnessed increased US diplomatic, economic and military efforts, the strengthening of alliances and partnerships, and increased engagement with China. The rebalance and engagement with China have had episodically curbed Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea followed by new waves of Chinese expansion.

US diplomacy, including statements by President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, as well as support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Code of Conduct, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and a moratorium on construction have occasionally caused China to take “one step back” and make conciliatory gestures. But Beijing took “two steps forward” in 2013 and 2015 with accelerated outpost construction and militarization. This can be seen as a counter to the rebalance and as part of a strategy to change the status quo in the South China Sea.

Beijing has shown that it will surge, stop, and surge in its expanding construction activities. It will continue to issue warnings to military aircraft and ships from the United States and its partners from “intruding” into newly claimed territory.

The United States is currently counting on soft balancing. It employs multilateral diplomacy through ASEAN and a coalition with the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam and others to eventually bring China to negotiate a binding Code of Conduct and resolve the growing dispute. Soft balancing, backed by security cooperation and US military power, appears to be the optimal strategy in the short to medium term, given the weakness of allied and partner security forces.

Increased security cooperation, with joint exercises with Southeast Asian nations and Japan, Australia and India as well as the equipping and training of Southeast Asian security forces, is demonstrating growing resolve in the face of assertive actions by China’s security forces. Continuing cruises by the US Navy and overflight by US naval and air force planes are providing military backing to soft balancing. It is a signals to China and reassures allies and partners, which are trying to defend their exclusive economic zones.

As the cornerstone of the rebalance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership will increase US influence in the region and strengthen ties with Malaysia and Vietnam and eventually other states. Increased multilateral trade will enable these states to stand up to China and efforts at economic blackmail. The increasing free flow of goods and investment will encourage US companies to become more involved in the region and will increase US interests in the region. The invitation to China to join provides an incentive for cooperation on the South China Sea issue.

The trajectory of China’s behavior will determine if the soft balancing approach will be successful. Until recently, defensive realists have been correct in explaining China’s behavior and gauging its intentions. China had been driven both by the need to defend growing national security and economic interests, evidenced by the leadership’s statements on the South China Sea and incremental expansionist policy.

If China remains motivated mainly by defense of its interests, the reputational costs being imposed against expansion will eventually cause a recalculation of Beijing’s strategy. Soft-balancing by the United States and its partners would stand a good chance of working. A ruling in favor of the Philippines in the UNCLOS case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the International Court of Justice would add ammunition to the soft balancing strategy.

In recent years, however, the offensive realist perspective on China’s behavior and intentions has gained currency. If China is indeed assertively trying to change the status quo in the South China Sea, it will be more difficult for soft balancing to influence Beijing’s behavior. However, it is too early to definitively conclude that China has gone over to the offensive. President Xi Jin Ping may be using expansion in the South China Sea as a way of demonstrating his power as a leader. Alternatively, the economic slowdown in China combined with the US rebalance may cause the leadership to rethink the strategy. Also, the New Silk Road strategy of infrastructure investment may cause Beijing to become more cooperative with the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

The constructivist perspective, which points to the leadership’s self-conceptualization as succeeding Imperial China in the Asian domain and as part of its strategic culture and appeals to Chinese nationalism, provides further insight into Beijing’s behavior and intentions. On the one hand, China’s strategic culture also includes confidence that patience will eventually bring rewards and that dominance will come sooner or later.

On the other hand, Xi appears to be offensively asserting China’s growing power and moving towards dominance before he is due to step down in 2023. He is also appealing to Chinese nationalism in forging ahead in the South China Sea. Nationalism is strong in China. It may lead to unintended escalation and other negative consequences in the South China Sea as well as the East China Sea against Japan.

In 2023, it is likely that Xi Jin Ping’s successor will continue the policy of expansion in the South China Sea. By that time, China may have been able to resolve its domestic problems and shifted to a consumer-driven economy. This could put it into a position where it is able to make international concessions. China also will strive to draw closer diplomatically, economically and militarily to ASEAN states. However, if China’s economy declines, the leadership could either focus inward and make concessions on the South China Sea or less likely stir up nationalist sentiments and initiate a diversionary conflict.

Stephen Burgess is a Professor at the Department of International Security Studies of the Air War College at the Maxwell Air Force Base in the United States. He is the author of “Rising Bipolarity in the South China Sea”, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol.37, No.1, pp.111-143. It is available here.