US Makes Up Some Lost Diplomatic Ground Over South China Sea


Many policymakers and analysts would agree that there is a surging soft and hard power struggle between China and the United States for dominance in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia. I argue elsewhere that China has made significant inroads in what was long a region of U.S. soft power dominance. But Washington is making some progress in regaining lost ground.

Soft power is the capability to use economic or cultural influence to shape the preferences of other countries. Hard power is the use of a coercive approach to international relations. Of course, hard power usually matters more in the end but the two types overlap and integrate in kind and effect to become “diplomacy.” In a clever reversal of Clausewitz’ famous dictum, China’s first Premier Zhou Enlai once quipped, “All diplomacy is a continuation of war with other means.” In the particular situation of the South China Sea and Southeast Asia, soft power may win the contest without hard power coming into play — at least explicitly. The United States is clearly the superior military power — both overall and in the South China Sea specifically, although China is eroding the U.S. advantage there. But China seems to be gaining the soft power advantage by virtue of its geographic position as a permanent part of Asia and its burgeoning economic largesse.

The United States has consistently and strenuously argued to its allies, friends, and any others that will listen that China wants hegemony in the South China Sea and to that end is “militarizing” the features it occupies; bullying its rival claimants; threatening freedom of navigation; violating, as well as trying to revise the applicable international law and order; and thus generating instability.

China has its own narrative. Beijing counters that it is only exercising its right to defend its territory, just as other claimants are doing; that it is not threatening and will not threaten commercial freedom of navigation; and that it is willing to negotiate disputes bilaterally as agreed in the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea as well as willing to enter into provisional arrangements of a practical nature to harvest resources in the disputed areas (as called for in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS). China claims that it is the United States — an outsider and non-party to UNCLOS — that is creating instability with its provocative military presence, intelligence probes, and Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), because Washington wants to continue its hegemony in the region, including the South China Sea.

China’s soft power campaign has made progress in winning some ASEAN nations to its side on these issues — like Cambodia, Laos, and perhaps Myanmar. Beijing has even made surprising inroads with U.S. allies Thailand and the Philippines. It has caused others like Brunei, Malaysia, and even U.S. strategic partner Singapore to hedge and waffle. Vietnam is clearly in the U.S. camp, and the de facto leader of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, seems to be leaning more that way.