Why the US’ tough South China Sea rhetoric is not very smart


It was never realistic to think Southeast Asian claimants would hop on the China-bashing bandwagon. With a more aggressive military presence, the US could force nations to choose between it and China, but Washington might not like the outcome

Mark J. Valencia

Published: 3:30am, 14 Aug, 2020

Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a position on the South China Sea, declaring in a statement: “The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources…”

He then mounted a diplomatic full-court press to round up Southeast Asian countries for the US’ campaign against China’s actions in the South China Sea.

He vowed the US would “support countries … who recognise that China has violated their legal territorial claims”, adding: “We will go provide them the assistance we can, whether that’s in multilateral bodies, whether that’s in Asean, whether that’s through legal responses, we will use all the tools we can.” Presumably, that would include military “tools” if necessary.

But the reaction of many Southeast Asian countries was cautious. Indeed, this policy initiative seems likely to fail. Why?

China hits back at US after Pompeo says most of Beijing’s claims in South China Sea are illegal

Mainly, these states are concerned that, as in the Cold War, they will become pawns and suffer accordingly. It did not help when, days later, Pompeo crossed the political Rubicon by directly attacking the Chinese Communist Party.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper poured petrol on the fire by declaring: “Goodwill and best wishes do not secure freedom. Strength does.”

This ramped-up rhetoric was preceded by a show of force involving two US Navy aircraft carriers. Yet, Pompeo did not get the response from Southeast Asia he might have hoped for.

As William Choong of Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute noted, a challenge to China on values was “not going to take off” in Southeast Asia. “We are not going to see the same kind of pushback that the US expects to see in Asean,” he said. “This whole confronting China and kicking down the front door, I don’t think that’s an Asean way.”

That’s not the only problem. Some worry that Pompeo’s tough talk is just a ploy to help President Donald Trump’s re-election. Others see the US presence in the region as a double-edged sword, which could deter or escalate tensions with China.

In the analysis of Shahriman Lockman at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies: “The worst-case scenario is for things to escalate, and then the US gets distracted … and we get saddled with more Chinese ships in our waters.”

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations like Indonesia and Singapore have remained neutral. Indonesia described any country’s support for Indonesian rights in the Natuna Sea as “normal”.

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein called on countries to “avoid military posturing”. He added that Malaysia should not be “dragged and trapped” in a tug of war between superpowers.

The Philippines did not join a recent US-led naval exercise in the South China Sea, with Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr saying: “We’re sitting out this one.”

Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions

There are good reasons that a US-instigated anti-China front is unlikely to materialise in Asean. These nations each have their own economic and geopolitical reasons for not wanting to be out of favour with China.

Indeed, it was never realistic to think Southeast Asian claimants to the South China Sea would jump on the China-bashing bandwagon – especially if it involves military intervention.

With the exception of Vietnam – and even its support remains in question – it is doubtful that Southeast Asia will welcome any attempt to back up a threat of the use of force with specifics.

Yet, there are those who say the Trump administration made a “smart” move, in clarifying its position on the South China Sea. Maybe they think China’s rival claimants can be persuaded by US rhetoric and convinced that the US has interests beyond freedom of navigation (or freedom to engage in intelligence probes into China).

Perhaps they are counting on anti-China (or anti-Chinese) sentiment in some countries in the region. They might even be hoping that some will follow the US’ example if it uses military force. If so, this is dangerous wishful thinking.

If the US fails to deter China, it might have to choose between a credibility loss and a “kinetic” conflict. This is the very dilemma it had avoided by being ambiguous. But now the cat is out of the bag. The US must either back up its bold words, or lose more credibility with regard to its staying power and its commitment to friends, allies and the region.

Worse is the possibility of unilateral provocative actions by those like Vietnam, which may feel emboldened by the idea that the US will support China’s rival claimants. That clarification was not a smart move.

The US has been rapidly losing soft power in Southeast Asia since the Trump administration withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump’s “America first” mantra has made Asean nations feel like they are on their own. With a more aggressive diplomatic and military presence, the US could force nations in the region to choose between it and China, but the US might not like the outcome.

An appeal to Southeast Asia to join in the US’ ideological struggle against China is not sufficient. The only way to rebuild the integrity of its relationships is to respect the region’s self-defined interests as much as its own. Otherwise, this US policy initiative, like others before it, is likely to fail.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

Dr Mark J. Valencia is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. Currently he is adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

Source: SCMP “hy the US’ tough South China Sea rhetoric is not very smart”

Note: This is SCMP’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.


US Military Needs Weapons, Allies, Efficiency to Counter China’s Rise


In its report “US must be ready for military clash with China, Pentagon official Chad Sbragia says”, SCMP quotes Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, as saying, “US needs to develop weapons, boost ties with allies and improve military efficiency to be ready against ‘formidable’ China”

Of the three tasks developing weapons, boosting ties with allies and improving military efficiency, developing weapons is first of all US military’s weak point. It lacks vision in having wasted lots of resources on useless Zumwalt destroyers, LCSs, etc. and now has to catch up with China in developing hypersonic weapons.

The second task is even more unrealistic, the report says, “Traditional partners have bridled over President Donald Trump’s aggressive use of tariffs, his decision to withdraw from multilateral agreements and his focus on ‘America First’ policies.”

US allies are more likely to focus on themselves first than America first.

US long-term ally the Philippines has told the US that it would end the Philippines-US Visiting Forces Agreement, a move to reduce its alliance with the US.

The US certainly needs to improve its military efficiency but without strict discipline how can it achieve that? The commanders in charge of the two destroyers that clashed with commercial ships have not been duly punished yet. Without strict discipline how can US military be efficient?

Can US military officers accept strict enforcement of discipline?

Comment by Chan Kai Yee on SCMP’s report, full text of which can be viewed at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3051683/us-must-gird-possible-military-clash-china-pentagon-official?utm_medium=email&utm_source=mailchimp&utm_campaign=enlz-scmp_international&utm_content=20200221&MCUID=480db96a00&MCCampaignID=dfa7b64609&MCAccountID=3775521f5f542047246d9c827&tc=8.


China and Russia’s push to develop hypersonic weapons raises fears of arms race with US


  • China became the first country to announce the deployment of the missiles, but Russia recently announced it had developed a much more advanced version the Avangard

  • Defence analysts say the weapons are not a game changer for now but could give Moscow extra leverage in negotiations with the US

Minnie Chan

Published: 6:00am, 19 Jan, 2020

Updated: 11:31pm, 19 Jan, 2020

China’s DF-17 missiles pictured at the National Day parade in Beijing. Photo: AP

Recent breakthroughs in the development of hypersonic weapons have heightened fears about a new arms race between China, Russia and the US, with some defence observers calling for new international arms control agreements.

The emergence of hypersonic weapons has raised concerns about the “invincible” arms, which cannot be intercepted by any existing defence systems, being used to enhance nuclear powers’ capabilities.

A hypersonic weapon is usually defined as one that reaches speeds of at least Mach 5, five times the speed of sound.

Last year China became the first country in the world to publicly announce the deployment of hypersonic weapons when its DF-17 missile featured in the National Day military parade on October 1.

But in late December Russia announced the formal deployment of its Avangard missile.

The deployment of Avangard indicated that Russia is ahead of both China and the US, because the DF-17 hypersonic missile of the People’s Liberation Army is a low-tech one, which can travel at a speed of Mach 6,” a military insider told the South China Morning Post.

Russian media claimed that the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle can fly at speeds of Mach 20.

The US has resumed hypersonic missile development under Donald Trump after his predecessor Barack Obama suspended the programme but is yet to announce the development of its own weapons.

Russia and China currently enjoy an advantage in the development of hypersonic technology, based on the number of successful test flights they have conducted, while India and France are close behind, according to a recent report published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Footage from the launch of the first Avangard hypersonic missile system in Russia. Photo: EPA-EFE

Despite the accelerating arms race, Margaret Kosal, an associate professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, said the hypersonic technology would not be a game changer because evidence suggested the technology would not replace nuclear weapons as the most effective strategic deterrence tool.

Hypersonic missiles will not cause deterrence among superpowers, great powers, or rising powers, [even though the weapons] might affect aspects of the deterrence calculus and might affect choices in command and control,” she said.

Footage of China’s test of hypersonic aircraft: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aVWQ2uOCepU&feature=youtu.be

Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming said hypersonic weapons might increase the cost of war, but none of the three major powers would use them as a pre-emptive strike tool and would continue to enhance their strategic nuclear technology.

The appearance of hypersonic weapons has been the icing on the cake for strategic nuclear weapons among today’s three superpowers, because it means the cost of being a real nuclear state is increasing,” he said.

The production and maintenance cost of hypersonic weapons might be much cheaper … but its development cost is tremendous, with each flight test costing billions of yuan.”

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said it would be almost impossible to stop the major powers competing to develop hypersonic technology, but they could work to avert a potential crisis by agreeing not to arm them with nuclear weapons.

Hypersonic missiles could become either national saviour, or state sinner, it depends on what the leaders decide,” he said.

The three countries should obtain a consensus and verification mechanism to prohibit any hypersonic glide vehicles being armed with nuclear weapons.”

However, hypersonic weapons could also be used as a tactical weapon to increase negotiating power.

Alexei Rakhmanov, president of Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation, said in December that Moscow would arm its new warships with hypersonic weapons and retrofit its existing vessels with the missiles, according to a report by the news agency Tass.

If [Russia’s plan is realised, it’ll present a whole new game changer here,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow with the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies’ maritime security programme in Singapore.

Both Koh and Zhou believe Russian President Vladimir Putin used the country’s advantage in developing Advangard to increase its bargaining power ahead of the upcoming Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations with the US.

START is expected to replace the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that Trump decided to withdraw from last year.

Moscow believes it’s ahead in this area of strategic weapons technology,” Koh said.

It’ll have an impact on strategic deterrence … if the day comes when these three major powers possess hypersonic weapons there could be an international push for new arms control agreements to restrict their use and proliferation.”

Both US and Russia are keen on bringing China into the negotiation and expand it into a trilateral treaty.

But Beijing has insisted it is not qualified to join the discussion, saying the number of nuclear payloads in its stockpiles lags far behind Washington and Moscow’s arsenals.

However, as the power with the most advanced hypersonic missile technology after Russia, Kosal said there may be a push to convince China to join the US and Russia for new arms control discussions.

Hypersonics are not likely to substantially change the relationships between China, Russia and the US. The hype around hypersonics, however, will generate enough interest to prompt productive discussions and increased Track I and Track II diplomatic efforts both bilaterally and trilaterally,” she said, referring to backchannel diplomacy through non-governmental contacts.

That would be a good thing.”

Source: SCMP “China and Russia’s push to develop hypersonic weapons raises fears of arms race with US”

Note: This is SCMP’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.


Hawkish Blind Spots and the Danger of Provoking China


By Daniel Larison • December 22, 2016, 12:06 PM

Michael Swaine explains why the U.S. shouldn’t repudiate its “one China” policy:

The problem with this argument is that it is based on a fantasy recognized by countless past U.S. political leaders and policy experts: that China’s leaders would not regard an obvious American attempt to permanently separate Taiwan from mainland China as a fundamental, existential threat to the Chinese government and China’s domestic stability, inevitably requiring the use of all means necessary to prevent it, including military force. China will fight back. An examination of this issue by countless numbers of China specialists and foreign policy analysts over many decades has confirmed Chinese resolve on this matter over and over. Indeed, it is highly likely that Beijing would attempt to use force to prevent Taiwan’s permanent separation from China even if it knew it could not succeed [bold mine-DL], because while other Chinese elites and the Chinese public might possibly forgive a failed attempt to prevent independence, they would without question not forgive inaction in the face of what would assuredly be widely viewed in China as a betrayal of a decades-long understanding between Washington and Beijing and an attack on the Chinese nation.

Hawks typically have three very large blind spots when it comes to understanding how other governments will behave in response to provocations: they underestimate how far the other government is willing to go to protect what it considers to be vitally important to them, they assume that the other government will yield to American preferences if they are presented forcefully enough, and they usually fail to recognize that they would respond very negatively to similar provocations from another state. We have seen all three mistakes on display in the debate over Trump’s China provocations.

If the American and Chinese positions were reversed, the same hawks that celebrate Trump for “boldness” would be outraged by the other state’s blatant interference in what we consider to be our affairs. If the incoming leader of another government suggested that we might be willing to trade away something we consider to be non-negotiable, the same hawks would be the first to reject the idea as shameful appeasement. The point that hawks usually miss is that other states have their own hard-liners that are just as prone to insist on the importance of “resolve” in the face of foreign challenges and are just as likely to overreact to provocations as they are. Especially when it touches on something that those hard-liners consider to be a core national interest, we should expect a very negative and severe reaction.

As Ted Galen Carpenter points out, the Taiwan issue isn’t like any other issue for Beijing:

To most Chinese, Taiwan is about more than a control over a strategic and economic asset—although those aspects are important to Beijing too. But Taiwan lies at the core of a Chinese identity that remains bruised from China’s treatment at the hands of the West (and Japan) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy has suffered greatly from our policymakers’ recurring failure to take the nationalism of other countries as seriously as they should have. Underestimating the importance of Chinese nationalism as it relates to this issue in particular would be one of the worst and most dangerous failure yet.

Source: The American Conservative “Hawkish Blind Spots and the Danger of Provoking China”

Note: This is The American Conservative’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.