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Bell Tolls for the Pivot in the South China Sea
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In discussing the issue of why the PRC plunked down the drilling rig HYSY981 off the Vietnamese coast, there seems to be a certain amount of cognitive dissonance plaguing the Western commentariat.

Apropos l’affaire HYSY 981,The Asia Society hosted a roundtable on its website composed of the luminaries Daniel Kliman, Ely Ratner, Orville Schell, Susan Shirk, and Carl Thayer. Almost all of them ignored the elephant in the room—the US pivot to Asia.

Only Carl Thayer, in my opinion, gets it right in discussing the third of his three possibilities for the PRC’s provocation:

The third interpretation stresses the geo-political motivations behind China’s actions. The deployment of the CNOOC mega rig was a pre-planned response to President Barack Obama’s recent visit to East Asia. China was angered by Obama’s support for both Japan and the Philippines in their territorial disputes with Beijing. Therefore China manufactured the oil rig crisis to demonstrate to regional states that the United States was a “paper tiger” and there was a gap between Obama’s rhetoric and ability to act.

The third interpretation has plausibility. China can make its point and then withdraw the oil rig once it has completed its mission in mid-August. But this interpretation begs the question why Vietnam was the focus for this crisis and why China acted on the eve of the summit meeting of the heads of government/state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

I would go a step further than Mr. Thayer, and opine that China’s South China Sea escapade is more than a one-off tantrum. It represents a “sea change” in the PRC’s strategy for dealing with the pivot to Asia.

For US-China relations, that means:

No G2. That’s been clear since Hillary Clinton 86’ed the concept as Secretary of State, anyway.

Little more than symbolic lip service to the “new great power” relationship founded on the comforting myth of the World War II victors’ dispensation with the heirs to Roosevelt & Chiang Kai-shek calling the Asian shots, a fantasy which Prime Minister Abe is working assiduously to undermine and supersede.

And, most importantly, from the Chinese point of view, no pivot, at least in the South China Sea.

In other words, the PRC intends to ignore the idea that its actions in its near beyond are to be deterred by the alarm and opposition of the US and the Asian democracies, thereby challenging the basic assumption of the pivot: that PRC’s defiance of the pivot triggers a virtuous cycle of escalation and anxiety, causing smaller Asian countries to cleave to the United States more closely, thereby enhancing US influence and inhibiting the PRC’s freedom of motion.

I would suggest that, to answer Mr. Thayer’s rhetorical question, the reason that the PRC decided to beat up on Vietnam just before the ASEAN summit—when, by pivot logic the PRC should be loath to antagonize its nervous regional interlocutors and increase the risk of united, anti-PRC action on behalf of Vietnam and the Philippines by the various spooked ASEAN nations—the Chinese leadership did it because they could, and because they wanted to.

Quite simply, I think, the PRC wanted to make a statement that it would not be deterred.

Surprisingly, ASEAN went along and declined to administer a serious flaming to the PRC, despite the vociferous complaints of Vietnam and the Philippines concerning the rather blatant provocations by the PRC. A communique on the issue merely asked for “all sides” to show restraint. Wonder how much bilateral stroking and armtwisting that took.

The fact that the PRC has taken a major action to repudiate the basic premise of the pivot—that a US-led security alliance can deter unilateral and provocative PRC behavior and put an end to the endless exercise of salami-slicing and cabbage-wrapping in its maritime adventures—is, in my opinion, a pretty big deal.

The pivot, after all, is welcomed because it assumes that the PRC, whose military is no match for the US or even, probably, Japan, can be deterred with relatively low risk and at low cost.

If the PRC is going to ignore the consequences of challenging the US pivot and assume, rather logically, that the US is not going to light off a war with China over the SCS, those costs and risks increase. Worst case, President Obama has to fall back on Nixon’s “madman” doctrine, which is to say the United States is prepared to inflict and endure (at least through its unlucky allies) losses disproportionate to the interests at stake in order to maintain credibility of the deterrent.

The PRC’s willingness to challenge, provoke, and escalate is a major issue for the pivot.

However, the clang of cognitive dissonance still seems to be faint and ignorable for the public US Asian affairs commentariat, at least as long as the designated victim is Vietnam, if the Asia Society round table is an indicator.

Ely Ratner and Susan Shirk, in particular, take the tack that the HYSY981 is simply a big, stupid blunder by the big, stupid PRC.

First, Ely Ratner:

[T]he Chinese Communist Party appears increasingly unable to reconcile predominant political and economic goals of securing its sovereignty aims while sustaining a peaceful regional security environment… we’ve seen China engage in bearish and clumsy actions that have raised concerns not just in Tokyo and Manila, but also Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and now Hanoi. At the end of the day, this means that domestic bureaucratic and political imperatives are overcoming the logic of strategy in Beijing, a dangerous development for outsiders hoping that relative costs and benefits (not politics and nationalism) will shape China’s decision-making on its territorial disputes… These…troubling elements paint the picture of a country whose foreign policy is untethered from strategic logic and increasingly engaging in preemptive revisionism.

And Susan Shirk:

The diplomats in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, especially Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who crafted China’s very successful strategy to reassure Asian countries about China’s friendly intentions during 1996-2009 and is trying to revive the strategy now under Xi Jinping, must be well aware that such high-profile assertions of sovereignty will provoke a backlash among China’s worried neighbors. When ASEAN meets next week, the Southeast Asian countries will certainly be pointing fingers at China, as Taylor Fravel predicts in his very informative Q & A with The New York Times. But the Foreign Ministry’s voice no longer dominates the foreign policy process.

What China’s actions reflect, as Ely Ratner says, is the very dangerous possibility that Chinese security policy has become “untethered from strategic logic.” In other words, domestic bureaucratic interest groups and nationalist public opinion are driving toward over-expansion of sovereignty claims in a manner that could actually harm China’s overall national security interests.

I am no fan of the “crazy stupid psycho panda” school when it comes to analyzing PRC moves that the US finds disturbing. Nevertheless, the CSPP school is a remarkably durable construct in US Asia-wonk circles, perhaps in direct proportion in faith in the genius of the pivot and the idea that it is the best and essential tool for dealing with the PRC.

My general take is that the United States is the only power with the wealth, military capability, and political and geographic impunity to act really stupidly and irrationally, a characteristic, I might say, is on full display as the Obama administration feeds Ukraine into the maw of anarchy in order to punish Russia for the annexation of Crimea (and perhaps distract attention from the spectacular, compounded clusterf*ck that is the US program for building a pro-Western regime in Kyiv).

Smaller powers, regional powers, and candidate superpowers in complicated neighborhoods, like the PRC, have to plan their moves a little more carefully.

And Beijing has been thinking.

China’s Defense Minister, Chang Wanquan, drew a line during his joint press conference with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in early April:

China-U.S. relations is by no means the relations between China — between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, nor is it relation of coercion and anti-coercion. With the latest development in China, it can never be contained.

Fast forward to the ruckus surrounding the HYSY 981:

MOFA spokersperson’s statement on May 12:

Q: First, Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) calls for speeded-up negotiations with China on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). What is China’s response to that? Second, some western media believed that China’s drilling activities in the waters off Xisha Islands are in response to the US’s pivot to Asia and President Obama’s recent visit to Asia. What is China’s comment?

A: On your first question, the issue of South China Sea is not one between China and ASEAN. There is consensus between China and ASEAN countries on jointly safeguarding peace and stability in South China Sea. China stands with ASEAN countries to continue to work for a full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and steadily move forward the negotiation process of COC.

[As to the second question, the spokesperson asserted that the drilling rig operation was routine and had nothing to do with the pivot, which I choose to interpret as a backhanded statement that the pivot has nothing to do with the South China Sea.]

And May 13:

Q: The US Secretary of State John Kerry held a phone conversation with Foreign Minister Wang Yi today. The US side asked China to stop taking provocative actions. What is China’s response to that?

A: You mentioned the word “provocative”. It is true that provocative actions have been seen in the South China Sea recently. But they are not taken by China. It is nothing but the wrong words and actions made by the US side on maritime issues that have emboldened some countries to take provocative actions. We would like the US side to think hard on this: if they really want the Pacific region to be pacific, what kind of role should they play? What actions should they take to truly contribute to the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region?

…Wang Yi … urged the US to treat these issues with objectivity and fairness, live up to its commitment, watch its words and actions, and avoid emboldening relevant parties’ provocative actions.

Emphasis added.

I am not torturing prose here to interpret these remarks as “China cannot be contained” (Chang actually said that), and that the declaration that the PRC will work together with ASEAN to “jointly safeguard peace and stability” is meant to convey that the United States has no legitimate front-line interests in the South China Sea and the main job of the United States is to “watch its words and actions” to avoid exacerbating the problems.

In other words, the PRC is working to maneuver the South China Sea issues away from the rather canard-esque “freedom of navigation” issue that Hillary Clinton used to claim a compelling US interest in the South China Sea disputes in 2010.

Instead, the drilling rig episode highlights the fact that the real issues in the South China Sea are the local matters of territory, sovereignty, fisheries, hydrocarbon reserves and delineation of Exclusive Economic Zones or EEZ (Vietnam cannot claim an uncontested EEZ at the site of the HYSY 981; beyond the notorious Chinese cow-tongue claim, the rig is too close to the Paracels, which have their own, as yet undefined EEZ potential).

This framing is more factual and practical, and more problematic for the United States and the pivot in the South China Sea.

The US doesn’t take positions of sovereignty issues concerning the miserable rocks of the South China Sea and has had to hang its hat on “no forcible change of the status quo” as American policy. That might work for the Senkakus in the East China Sea, but offers limited consolation for Vietnam in its hopes of recovering the Paracels, or for the Philippines in its travails over the Scarborough Shoal.

As for the headaches of EEZ delineation occasioned by the ridiculous fruit salad of sovereignty claims and disputes in the South China Sea, the US—which has been unable to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea even as it announces its adherence to its provisions—has even less ability to complain.

So the PRC is now claiming a pretty big chunk of salami—declaring that it doesn’t recognize a US role in the South China Sea.

As to why the PRC is making this provocative move, I’ve argued before that it is moving preemptively, in response to President Obama’s pivot and also expecting an extremely unfriendly constellation of forces in Asia once Hillary Clinton becomes president.

So I am inclined to believe that Xi Jinping has decided it’s time to challenge the pivot, carefully and via Vietnam, but openly.

In terms of proximate causes, I wonder if it was a smart move to send President Obama to Asia for a trip explicitly & exclusively designed to promote the pivot, lobby for Japanese collective self defense, conclude a new military agreement with the Philippines, leave the PRC off his itinerary, and expect the PRC to be mollified by visits from Michelle Obama and Chuck Hagel?

The PRC apparently didn’t think so, judging from Chang’s pugnacious remarks at the joint news conference with Hagel. In addition to announcing his rejection of any China-containment strategy, Chang devoted much of his time to complaining about the perceived transgressions of US allies the Philippines and Japan.

Also, I think Ukraine is a factor. While demonstrating US fecklessness as a security partner for its allies, it also served as an object lesson in the US willingness to escalate recklessly when it sees a chance to stick it to a designated adversary.

The fact that the United States has seen fit to drive Vladimir Putin into Xi Jinping’s arms just as the PRC was looking at an extremely tough decade of isolation and confrontation with the US and its Asian neighbors will, I am sure, provide ample grist for future students of international relations.

For now, I find it rather mystifying that the PRC challenge to the pivot is ignored in the popular, pundit-driven press.

Maybe it’s me.

But maybe there’s some kind of code of omerta, an agreement that this issue won’t be bruited about until the US government has settled on a suitable public riposte.

I don’t think the US government is oblivious.

Consider this report in Stars & Stripes:

A USS Blue Ridge-embarked helicopter photographed two Chinese navy ships May 5 near the site of a heavily contested shoal that has sparked a months-long standoff between China and the Philippines in 2012.

The Navy’s photo release of two Chinese Navy ships near Scarborough Shoal sparked some online news outlets to label the encounter a confrontation, which 7th Fleet officials disputed Friday.

The USS Blue Ridge is the command and control flagship that runs things for the US Seventh Fleet. The two Chinese ships—PLAN ships, not the usual maritime patrol vessels that harass the Philippines—were presumably in the area to monitor a joint Philippine-US military exercise.

And I presume that the USS Blue Ridge sailed past the Scarborough Shoal in order to yank the PRC’s chain, and not just because that was the quickest way to Thailand, which the US Navy claimed as the reason for the approach.

This represents something of an escalation of the US presence in the area of the Philippines vis a vis the PRC, especially compared to the US government’s discrete behind the scenes assistance to the Philippine government’s resupply mission (and media jamboree) to the derelict freighter on the Second Thomas Shoal.

By sailing the USN Blue Ridge around down there and flying helicopters to take a gander at the Chinese warships, I think that the US wanted to put the PRC on notice that dispatching the HYSY 981 to Philippine waters will be a more complicated and fraught undertaking than the Vietnam exercise.

Whether the PRC finds it expedient to heed that warning is something we may find out about in the next few months.

Below the fold for reference are excerpts from Chang Wanquan’s remarks at his press conference with Secretary Hagel, and from the MOFA press conferences addressing the oil rig issue:

Chang Wanquan remarks April 8, 2014 (excerpt)

Indeed, there is someone trying to stirring up troubles in the surrounding situations — surrounding China. I’d like to make clear several points on this issue.

First, since Abe administration made a series of wrong remarks indeed- since he took office, causing severe difficulties — and imposing severe impacts on regional peace and stability, causing severe difficulty in China-Japan relations.

Japan takes reversed course of history and confronts the right with the wrong. Moreover, Japan insists on hotline and is provocative all the time, leading the tension of the situation.

Thirdly, the rights of political — (inaudible) — is quite worrisome. This is what should arouse the international community’s high attention and vigilance.

Furthermore, Japan still has huge amount of nuclear material, which exceeds its practical needs. The international community should also be alarmed against this.

Second, disguising itself as a victim, the Philippines repeatedly breaks the promise they made. They even submitted the memorial to the arbitral tribunal on the South China Sea disputes between China and the Philippines in the name of the international law.

I think they did the math in the wrong way. The fact is that it is the Philippines who illegally occupy part of China’s islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

China has made it clear on several occasions that it does not accept and will not participate in the international arbitration initiated the Philippines.

Third, China’s position on South China Sea and East China Sea issue is clear and consistent. China has indisputable sovereignty over Diaoyu Islands, Nansha Islands, and their adjacent waters.

As to sovereignty dispute over islands and reefs, and the sea boater delimitation issue, China stands ready to resolve the issue through negotiation with the countries directly involved.

Fourth, I will actually reiterate that territorial sovereignty issue is China’s core interest. On this issue, we will make no compromise, no concession, no trading, not even a tiny bit of violation is allowed.

Fifth, it is the Chinese military’s mission to safeguard national sovereignty, security, and the territorial integrity. We are prepared at any time to cope with all kinds of threats and challenges. Upon the request of the party and the people, the Chinese military can assemble as soon summoned, fight immediately upon arrival and win any battle, as long as they fight. Thank you.

…MIN. CHANG (through translator): It’s quite a coincidence, during my visit with the U.S. last August, I was also asked a question concerning the U.S. rebalancing strategy in Asia Pacific. Today, it came up again.

I would like to reiterate my position.

Both China and the U.S. are important countries in Asia-Pacific region. And the U.S. is a country of worldwide influence. I think the Pacific Ocean is huge enough to hold both China and the U.S. for common development, and also huge enough to hold the other Asian-Pacific countries.

Second, China-U.S. relations is by no means the relations between China — between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, nor is it relation of coercion and anti-coercion. With the latest development in China, it can never be contained.

Third, the two sides are positively building the new model of major country relations featuring no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, according to the consensus reached between the two heads of state.

This new model of major country relationship should take shape firstly in the Asia-Pacific region. The common interests of China and U.S. in the Asia-Pacific outweigh their differences. We respect the U.S. presence and influence in Asia-Pacific region.

We hope that the U.S. rebalancing strategy is helpful for safeguarding the regional peace and stability. And we also hope that the U.S. side can respect China’s interests and concerns in a dear way.

During my discussion with Secretary Hagel, we agree that we should strengthen communication and coordination and try to manage the crises and the risks, and work together with the regional countries to safeguard the peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

Cyberspace issue is also a topic of common interest. We talked about this issue both in small-scale discussion as well as the larger scale discussion.

I’d like to make clear three points on this issue. First, cyberspace is faced with severe security threats and challenge. All the countries in the world should make good use of the cyberspace and protect it. On cyberspace, China adheres to the principle of peace, security, openness, and cooperation.

The defense activity of the PLA in cyberspace abides by the domestic law and the universally recognized law. It will not pose a threat to others.

Third, the two militaries maintained in contact on this issue. Both China and the U.S. have extensive common interests in cyberspace, and the two militaries have conducted productive and candid dialog on this issue.

Both sides should earnestly implement the important consensus between the two heads of state and strengthen communication under the framework of strategic security dialog, prevent any military highly risky activity or miscalculation.

The Chinese side takes note of Secretary Hagel’s statement that the U.S. does not seek the militarization of cyberspace. It is quite important to maintain the peaceful nature of the cyberspace, and the Chinese side stands ready to deepen the communication with the U.S. side and together, to transfer this vision into policy and concrete actions.

MOFAMay 12, 2014 press conference

Q: First, Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) calls for speeded-up negotiations with China on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). What is China’s response to that? Second, some western media believed that China’s drilling activities in the waters off Xisha Islands are in response to the US’s pivot to Asia and President Obama’s recent visit to Asia. What is China’s comment?

A: On your first question, the issue of South China Sea is not one between China and ASEAN. There is consensus between China and ASEAN countries on jointly safeguarding peace and stability in South China Sea. China stands with ASEAN countries to continue to work for a full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and steadily move forward the negotiation process of COC. China and ASEAN countries are in close communication on this point. At the same time, we hope relevant ASEAN countries can earnestly respect and implement DOC, make positive efforts along with China to safeguard peace, stability and maritime security of South China Sea and create enabling conditions for COC negotiations.

On your second question, last week, Deputy Director General Yi Xianliang of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of the Foreign Ministry held a press briefing. He talked in details about the Vietnamese vessels’ disruptions of Chinese enterprise’s normal operations in the waters south to Zhongjian Island. He mentioned that the drilling operation did not just start a few days ago. China has been carrying out these drilling operations for a decade, so the operation this time is just a routine continuation of what China has begun a decade ago.

Q: The US naval vessel “Blue Ridge” had an encounter with Chinese naval vessels in waters near the Huangyan Island. Can you give us more details and what is China’s comment?

A: China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea, including the Huangyan Island, as well as the adjacent waters. It is legal and legitimate for Chinese naval vessels to carry out routine patrols in relevant waters. There is no need to be surprised at something that is perfectly normal.

MOFA,May 13, 2014 press conference

Q: The US Secretary of State John Kerry held a phone conversation with Foreign Minister Wang Yi today. The US side asked China to stop taking provocative actions. What is China’s response to that?

A: You mentioned the word “provocative”. It is true that provocative actions have been seen in the South China Sea recently. But they are not taken by China. It is nothing but the wrong words and actions made by the US side on maritime issues that have emboldened some countries to take provocative actions. We would like the US side to think hard on this: if they really want the Pacific region to be pacific, what kind of role should they play? What actions should they take to truly contribute to the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region?

This morning, Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a phone conversation with the US Secretary of State John Kerry as scheduled. Wang Yi emphasized that to further develop a new model of major-country relations between China and the US is an important consensus reached by the two heads of state, which is in line with the common interests of China and the US. Both sides need to enhance cooperation, protect bilateral ties from disruptions, and ensure sound and steady development of China-US relationship. Going forward, a series of important exchanges will be held between China and the US. Both sides need to collaborate closely to strive for positive outcomes.

With regard to the current maritime situation, Wang Yi clarified the historical context, the hard facts and China’s principles and positions on relevant issues. He urged the US to treat these issues with objectivity and fairness, live up to its commitment, watch its words and actions, and avoid emboldening relevant parties’ provocative actions. Kerry said that the US takes no position or side on the issues of territorial sovereignty, neither does it intend to make judgement. The US hopes that all parties can properly handle relevant issues and ensure regional peace and stability.

(Republished from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
 
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