Photo credit © Aly Song / Reuters
As tempting as it is to see the territory-circling happening in the South China Sea as frightening or, as Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told CNN, evidence there is “‘absolutely’ a risk of the U.S. and China going to war sometime in the future,” there may be another way to view the almost-altercation that happened yesterday when the US sent a destroyer on what they call a “freedom of navigation” exercise as a response to China’s construction of artificial islands in the region. In fact, it could be, if the US chooses to capitalize on it, a sign that better Sino-American relations are on the horizon.
That’s at least according to Dr. Frank Marlo, Ph.D., associate professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps University Command and Staff College in Quantico, Va.
“I do think this could be a turning point in our relationship [with China] in a positive way,” Marlo said via phone following a presentation he and a colleague gave in DC on how we have approached China in the past, and how we might better approach them in the future. “This is the perfect opportunity to start rebuilding the relationship in a good way.”
To back up…
What’s happening in the South China Sea has been building for years, and CNN does a good job laying out how things got to where they are now — which, at its core, embodies a desire by China to control an incredibly lucrative trade route and to strengthen their position regionally and globally. China has been building islands (some have referred to them as unsinkable aircraft carriers) in regions that are open waters or are claimed as sovereignty by other nations, some of whom just happen to be US allies. And so, we took a walk around the block, as it were. Just to check things out:
The U.S. government takes no position on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea but it has called for an immediate end to land reclamation…
…”U.S. Freedom of Navigation operations are global in scope and executed against a wide range of excessive maritime claims, irrespective of the coastal state advancing the excessive claim,” the official added.
And while it is currently China that is protesting the U.S. Navy’s maneuvers, according to Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the U.S. has used these operations to contest claims made by nearly all the countries surrounding the South China Sea, meaning not just China but also the Philippines — a treaty ally — as well as Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
According to Marlo, our actions yesterday — which the Chinese called “a very serious provocation, politically and militarily” — were appropriate and far too long in coming; something he insinuates may be a reason the Chinese felt free enough to begin their land reclamation several years ago. (For what it’s worth, former Sen. and Democrat presidential candidate Jim Webb has been warning about the coming tension since 2012. And the Democrats, in typical fashion, weren’t interested in using that expertise. Webb dropped his presidential bid for that party last week after mentioning (and hearing crickets) the situation developing in China at the first Democratic debate.)
According to Marlo, our preferred foreign policy for the last several years has been one of “assurance” rather than “deterrence”; and that, in all likelihood, has led to China’s boldness in the South China Sea.
“There are two approaches to this,” Marlo says. “One is, we say China is feeling threatened, contained, and confronted. With a policy of assurances, we have been reassuring them and encouraging working together to address common problems and global problems. That hasn’t been working because we, historically, have had very little success predicting political developments in closed societies like China.”
The second way to view it, Marlo says, is to recognize that China is feeling aggressive, “and take the proper approach, which is to make clear our commitments, stand by our allies, and stand by our specific interests in the region. And to send the message that we’re not going to back down. You’re much better off relying on strength and using that strength toward opening doors of cooperation than you are simply asking for cooperation and then allowing aggressive behavior,” he adds.
He says the current administration seemed to want to give the appearance of being non-confrontational and, as a result, waited too long and damaged the credibility of the United States in these matters. But what happened yesterday, he says, is a good first step, recalling how the US approached Gaddafi and his attempt to control the Gulf of Sidra. “Freedom of Navigation” exercises were carried out regularly and were normalized, thereby reducing tensions there.
“It will not be enough if this was just a one time exercise. This needs to be done on a sustained basis,” Marlo says. “We must make clear that these are international waters and we’re going to operate in these waters whenever we choose. If this was just a one time thing, then it was a huge mistake.”
However, getting back to the original premise, he believes that the next administration has the opportunity to affect a positive change in our relationship with China if they develop a flexible policy toward that relationship — or, indeed, a policy at all. “[China] is more likely to entertain a very serious likelihood of things changing if the candidates run on a more explicit foreign policy regarding them,” Marlo says. “But if the candidates aren’t even thinking about American credibility, then I don’t think much will change.”