– In the words of (ret.) Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Secretary of Defense Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, the Trump Administration has been dangerously “poking China in the eye.”
After sending aircraft carriers and destroyers to the precincts of the Taiwan Strait, last week the Pentagon dispatched two aircraft carrier strike groups – including escort cruisers and destroyers, 120 warplanes and 12,000 troops — to South China Sea waters claimed by China. China responded by deploying fighter jets to its near-by base on Woody Island and reminding the world of its anti-aircraft carrier missile capabilities.
Such a massive U.S. fleet has not been deployed to this intensely contested region since 2014. It is only the second time in two decades that such a bellicose show of force has been provocatively displayed in the Asia-Pacific.
This comes midst President Trump’s efforts to deflect attention from his catastrophic Covid-19 failures by blaming and scapegoating China. We had Trump’s “Wuhan virus” rebranding. On July 13, Secretary of State Pompeo issued a statement which appears to lay the legal foundations for war with China.
And, Chinese students and researchers in the United States have all been labeled as spies and potential spies. Ignoring the possible consequences or an unpredictable war, Trump appears to be pushing China to the brink, seeking a military incident that can be used to rally Americans around an actual wartime president and save his failing reelection campaign.
Two thousand five hundred years ago, the revered Greek historian Thucydides wrote his history of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. His analysis of the inevitable tensions between rising and declining powers which frequently – but not always – result in catastrophic war, became known as the Thucydides Trap.
In the South China Sea, President Trump is playing dangerously with the trap’s trigger. Even as we decry Beijing’s human rights abuses and provocative actions to create its version of the Monroe Doctrine in the South China Sea, we have an urgent responsibility to prevent war and to press for diplomatic initiatives to pull the two nuclear powers back from the brink.
The crisis has been brewing for decades. The South China Sea, portions of which are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei extends across 1.3 million square miles of the western Pacific.
Its sea-bed is thought to contain up to 17.7 billion tons of crude oil (making it the world’s fourth largest oil reserve), massive amounts of natural gas, and other minerals.
It also lies astride the sea lanes over which 40% of the world’s trade transits, including fossil fuels that power the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean economies. Its waves lap against China’s most vulnerable frontier – it’s coastal economic powerhouse from Shanghai to Guangzhou.
Much like the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf throughout the second half of the 20th century, the South China Sea functions as the jugular vein of the world’s most dynamic capitalist economies.
Were the Malacca Strait on the South China Sea’s western perimeter or its other sea lines of communication to be blockaded, the region’s economies would face disaster. The South China Sea can thus be understood as this century’s geostrategic center of the struggle for world power.
In 1949 both China and Taiwan first laid their claims to the U-shaped so-called “nine dot line”, consisting of roughly 80% of the entire South China Sea and its mineral-rich sea-beds.
By the late 1990s, with the Soviet Union consigned to memory and China’s “reform and opening” well under way, geo-strategists in Washington began their obsession with managing or containing China’s rise.
Given China’s growing economic power and its proud legacy of being the world’s most advanced and powerful nation for most of recorded history, they understood that the Middle Kingdom would inevitably test and challenge U.S. regional and global hegemony.
Taiwan, seen by China as a “renegade province” was the first and most obvious flashpoint. It took decades for the Pacific Ocean, an “American Lake” since the defeat of Japan in 1945, to once again become a focal point of great power tensions.
After Chinese leaders completed national boundary negotiations with their northern and western neighbors – excepting India – the South China Sea on its eastern and southern Pacific shores remained vulnerable. In addition to providing access to sea-bed riches the coast remained military fault line.
In the mid-19th century, in two “Opium Wars” fought to enforce British (and U.S.) rights to deluge the Middle Kingdom with addictive opium and thus rectify massive balance of payment inequalities, British naval and land forces invaded China from the coast, defeated China, and precipitated the subsequent collapse of the Qing Dynasty.
Then, beginning in 1895, Japan’s invasions of China came from the sea.
Competing territorial claims lie at the ostensible core of South China Sea tensions. The oil-rich fishing waters around the Parcel Islands, claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, are in the northern reaches of the South China Sea, just south of China’s Hainan Island and its new and massive naval and air force bases.
To the south are the Spratly Islands, claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. And, close to the Philippines, in waters named the West Philippine Sea by many Filipinos, is the Scarborough Shoal, claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines.
As early as 1974, when international attention focused on U.S.-Chinese triangulation against the Soviets, China seized a Vietnamese garrison on a western Parcel Island and transformed it into a Chinese military base.
To the south, Fiery Cross, built on a rock in 1988, is the most important of China’s Spratly Island bases. Its construction was followed by others at Subi and Mischief Reefs. And, with Coast Guard and naval deployments China has functionally seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines.
The U.S. is not a party to these territorial disputes, but the enemy of an enemy often serves as a friend. The U.S. became a colonizing Pacific power with its brutal turn of the 20th century conquests of the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, and its annexation of Hawaii – in large measure to gain privileged access to the potentially enormous China market.
Its Pacific empire was later expanded and consolidated with Japan’s defeat in World War II. To preserve this imperial domain, the U.S. has since encouraged resistance to China’s South China Sea territorial claims and has conducted provocative “freedom of navigation,” naval and air forays in close proximity to the disputed islands. A record number were held in 2019, with Trump apparently on track to set another record in 2020.
Even before the Barack Obama – Hillary Clinton “Pivot to Asia,” with its commitment to to deploy 60% of U.S. naval and airpower to the Pacific and Asia, President G.H.W. Bush began the U.S. Asia-Pacific build up to contain China’s rise. To reinforce U.S. military power, Bush, Obama and the Pentagon have since focused on reinforcing U.S. alliances, arms sales and deliveries, along with their military bases that encircle much of China.
Despite Trump’s disregard for the United States’ Japanese and South Korean allies and his withdrawal from the Transpacific Partnership, which was designed to limit China’s economic influence, the military build up continues apace.
U.S. military power still far exceeds that of China. Fueled by a military budget four time greater than Beijing’s, a campaign to increase the size of the U.S. Navy, upgrade the Air Force, restore U.S. nuclear primacy, and maximize cyber warfare capabilities, the commitment to containing China includes numerous and often provocative joint military exercises, not the least of which are the “freedom of navigation” deployments.
With the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) claimants unable to compete with China militarily, their primary means of asserting their territorial claims have been via diplomatic forums and the court of international public opinion.
Rooting their claims in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, they have pursued multilateral negotiations with China to create South China Sea codes of conduct, two of which have been agreed upon, but they have yet to be fully implemented. Encouraged by Washington, they also took their case to the U.N. Court of Permanent Arbitration where they prevailed.
Relying on its historical claims and the U.S. tradition of understanding international law being what those who have the power to enforce it say it is, China rejected the Arbitration Court’s findings.
Reinforcing the economic leverage Beijing exercises over ASEAN nations which are economically dependent on China, the Communist Party’s hardline newspaper The Global Times warned that those who persist in challenging China’s claim should “mentally prepare for the sounds of cannons.”
But, as the two imperial elephants struggle for geopolitical advantage, the Pacific ants remain steadfast in their claims and pursuit of diplomatic solutions.
MEETING CHINA HALFWAY
In his book Destined for War, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Graham Allison reminds us that while the Thucydides trap has often resulted in war, great power conflagrations have also been avoided. War with China is not inevitable.
A case in point was the 20th century U.S-Soviet contest for dominance. At the height of the Cold War, Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme convened elite figures from Europe, North America and the Soviet Union to prevent potentially omnicidal nuclear war.
Drawing on the truism that neither individuals nor nations can be secure unless their rivals simultaneously enjoy security they created the Common Security approach to diplomacy.
The Commission advised that we “must achieve security not against the adversary but together with him,” recognizing that when nations develop and deploy new weapons and military doctrines to counter perceived threats, their actions are seen by their rivals as escalating threats. This, in turn, leads the newly threatened nation to respond in kind, resulting in a spiraling arms race and to increased dangers of deadly miscalculations.
The Commission went on to suggest diplomatic steps that in time resulted in the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) Treaty that functionally ended the Cold War.
In this tradition, Lyle J. Goldstein, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, has enumerated ten “cooperation spirals” in his landmark volume Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry. One of Goldstein’s spirals of mutual and sequential diplomacy focuses on reducing tensions and stabilizing relations across the South China Sea.
He acknowledges that such negotiations will be difficult, will require patience, and could likely be improved upon. Most important is creating will on both sides of the Pacific to coexist despite our differences.
Clearly, and most urgently, those with influence on President Trump must press him to reverse course in the South China Sea, as he did with his “fire and fury” threat against North Korea. His aircraft carrier fleets must be recalled. “Freedom of Navigation” provocations must be halted.
And, it is past time to signal a U.S. commitment to pursue common security diplomacy with China and the nations of the Asia-Pacific.
Goldstein concedes that there might be better ways to meet China halfway in the South China Sea, but the mutual and sequential steps that he outlines provide a pathway that begins with small trust-building steps and which lead to coexistence that should be seriously considered, debated and improved upon. He recommends:
Step 1: The U.S. invites China to join the annual CARAT (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training) exercises in Thailand. This modest step can provide a “bridge between the two powers.” In response, China would propose a “regional antipiracy patrol”, focused on the critically important Malacca Strait. This would provide a vehicle for “building trust and confidence.”
Step 2: The U.S. proposes a Southeast Asia-Pacific Coast Guard Forum. With its Coast Guard focus, it will contribute to demilitarizing maritime security issues and improve the working relationships of U.S., Chinese and other regional leaders.
In response, China would invite ASEAN defense officials for annual tours of PLA (People Liberation Army) facilities, including Hainan Island. This would allow for greater transparency and trust building between China and its rival South China Sea claimants.
Step 3: The U.S. reduces its provocative surveillance activities along the Chinese coast and Hainan Island. The surveillance can be conducted from satellites and by other technical means, reducing the possibility of potentially dangerous military incidents as China takes military counter measures. (Serious incidents occurred in 2001, 2009 and 2014.)
In response, China would clarify its still ambiguous South China Sea territorial claims, making them consistent with the Law of the Sea. In doing so, “China’s U-shaped line may continue to exist but in ‘harmonized” form, to accord with greater peace and stability….”
Step 4: In response to China’s concession of clarifying its SCS claims, the U.S., which until Pompeo’s provocative July statement had remained neutral about the competing South China Sea claims, would “endorse’ China’s role as a claimant to the Spratley/Nansah Islands.
This would not be an endorsement of China’s claims, but it suggests that China’s claim is on a par with others’ claims. China, in response would move to finally “operationalize its policy of ‘joint development’” for South China Sea resources, with a 50-50 split serving as the basis.
Step 5: The U.S. ceases joint military operations with Vietnam, the only claimant nation that – given its long history of tensions with China – may wish to see the U.S. “embroiled in a confrontation with China.” Beijing, in response, would cease military cooperation with the Philippines and Indonesia as a way to stabilize the region.
In 1964, before the U.S. and China were economically integrated and before cyber warfare could threaten the implosion of national infrastructures, U.S. intelligence reported that China was on the verge of testing its first nuclear warhead.
In response U.S. and Soviet leaders considered the possibility of joining together in a preemptive attack to derail Beijing’ nuclear program. Wisely, President Johnson was led to reconsider and cancel what would have been a catastrophic war.
Eight years later, President Nixon was Mao Tse-Tung’s guest in Beijing. A U.S.-China war must be averted. Peace and coexistence, despite our differences, are possible.
Dr. Joseph Gerson is President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, Vice-President of the International Peace Bureau, and a board member of Massachusetts Peace Action. His books include Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World and With Hiroshima Eyes: Atomic War, Nuclear Extortion and Moral Imagination.