April 24, 2012

Muddy Waters

This month’s maritime standoff between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea isn’t the first time the region’s navies have gone toe-to-toe. But while past tensions revolved around resources under the ocean floor, this most recent event is part of a growing strategic rivalry pitting Chinese power against the United States and its East Asian allies. How Washington responds may determine the prospects for continued peace in the Pacific.

The latest crisis arose after the pocket-size Philippine Navy, with an old United States Coast Guard cutter as its new flagship, tried to apprehend Chinese fishermen it claimed were operating illegally near the Scarborough Shoal. China then sent two surveillance vessels — part of a recent effort to protect its claims in the East and South China Seas — to block the Philippine ship.

The message was stark: escalate and risk a violent run-in with the Chinese Navy, or stand down and negotiate with Beijing from a position of weakness.

Manila wisely chose the latter, first substituting a civilian vessel for its combat vessel, and then containing the dispute through diplomatic channels. But China was also sending a flare to Washington, to the effect that American efforts to strengthen the military capacity of its regional allies would be checked.

It’s easy to see the standoff as an act of quasi-aggression, but it’s not. Because China is looking for influence rather than spoiling for a fight, it will seek a minimal show of force, as it did in the Scarborough incident by sending surveillance vessels instead of warships. Drawing attention to its rapid military modernization or its intensifying nationalist sentiment, after all, could undermine China’s core interests.

The key take-away from the recent showdown is that the United States needs to remain coolheaded. Not only are such skirmishes at sea inevitable, but they are also of minor consequence — assuming they are managed shrewdly.

Given our allies’ overlapping interests in the South China Sea, we are bound to feel pressure to act aggressively against what appears to be Chinese expansionism. But as wiser heads in the United States have understood for decades, China is not truly expansionist. Its mercantilist international policies have material rather than imperial ambitions. China is testing the limits, not necessarily trying to pick a fight.

And we would do well to remember that for all their differences, China and the United States are not the cold war ideological adversaries of old. They both benefit enormously from an open global maritime commons. Globalization is possible only because of the unfettered sea lanes over which the vast majority of goods and resources move around the world. And the South China Sea, which joins the Indian and Pacific Oceans, is the narrow throat of our globalized economy.

That said, we shouldn’t ignore the underlying risk in such incidents, either. At least in the South China Sea, China’s military might will continue to bump up against the American Navy’s role as guarantor of freedom of the seas.

Nor will the two powers always see eye to eye. The United States has a treaty commitment to help defend the Philippines, but it has always been careful to maintain neutrality over sovereignty disputes. American diplomatic exertions have thus gone into supporting multilateral approaches that would make it more difficult for one power — China — to coerce its neighbors.

China, on the other hand, prefers to deal with the players in the region one by one, starting with a country like the Philippines, which it knows lacks the military capacity to defend its disparate islands.

While the current standoff may be under control, more are likely to occur, especially as our allies turn to us for protection — something we may see at next week’s meeting between the United States and the Philippines in Washington. And it hasn’t helped that soon after the dispute began, the United States and the Philippines started a long-planned military exercise nearby involving thousands of soldiers, sailors and Marines.

At the same time, separate disputes are guaranteed to continue among the countries around the South China Sea — including Malaysia, Vietnam and Japan as well as China and the Philippines — as long as oil and natural gas continue to be discovered under its waters.

Should a fight erupt, China is increasingly ready to rumble. Years of double-digit growth in its defense budgets are providing a historic land power with a blue-water naval capability and missile and air forces that put the American military presence in East Asia at risk.

This new reality, in short, recommends a specific course of action, one we are at risk of losing sight of: namely, to understand that China is testing the waters and sending signals but nothing more — but also to respond with precise, measured steps to ensure it doesn’t push the limits too far.

The maritime drama near Scarborough Shoal is just another salvo in a growing strategic rivalry that can be managed but not resolved. A resolute but prudent American position that seeks region-wide cooperation on common rules, but backed by American strength, remains the best means of keeping the waters tranquil.