Let’s be clear: China would call America’s bluff in the South China Sea


US FONOPs: Game on again in the South China Sea

It seems to be widely agreed that Washington’s current policy of well-worn talking points and low-key FONOPS in the South China Sea [SCS] isn’t working. Ely Ratner and I have been debating how to do better. Ely has proposed a more robust approach. He suggests that Washington could deter China from further provocations by warning that it would respond by encouraging and supporting the other claimants among China’s neighbours to develop, fortify and if necessary defend the islands and features which they occupy.

I have argued that this would not work, because Beijing is unlikely to believe that its smaller neighbours would risk provoking it in that way, nor that America would really support them if they did. Beijing would therefore view America’s warning as a bluff, and would be seriously tempted to call it, which would leave Washington with a choice between confrontation and probable conflict, or back-down and humiliation.

Ely has responded with two cogent points that go to the heart of the SCS issue, and of the much wider and more momentous questions of regional order which underlie it. First, he argues that China’s neighbours would be willing to stand up to China if America helps to reduce their economic dependence on China. And second, he argues that America can easily convince China not to test its resolve by calling its bluff.

But I remain unconvinced. First, Ely’s argument that America can encourage other Asian countries to stand up to China in the SCS by offering them alternative economic opportunities via a revived TPP or something like it underestimates the depth and strength of China’s economic position in Asia, and overstates the power of US economic statecraft.

Neither the TPP nor anything like it could ever offer China’s neighbours economic opportunities comparable to those provided by China’s still-rapid economic growth and the huge initiatives like BRI and AIIB that promise them a share in it. The reality is that whatever Washington does, China is going to be seen by all its East Asian neighbours as the principal driver of their economic prospects. And Beijing knows that. Any US policy towards China which wishes that away will fail.

Second, Ely’s confidence that China wouldn’t test US resolve overlooks the way US policy in Asia over recent years has emboldened Beijing. Certainly the Chinese do not want a war with America, but their recent conduct suggests they are increasingly confident that they do not need to fear one, because America can be relied upon to back off first from any confrontation.

As long as China believes this, then it is very likely that they would try to call the bluff if Washington tried to implement Ely’s proposals. And why wouldn’t they believe it?