Wu Shicun on Recent South China Sea Situation: Probability is Growing for Accidentally Triggered Incidents

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2020-07-27 | Wu Shicun

On July 13, U.S State Secretary Mike Pompeo issued the U.S. Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea in which he raised the arbitration ruling on the South China Sea 4 years ago and made open the U.S. opposition to China on the South China Sea issue. Given the frequent moves taken by the U.S. in the South China Sea, Dr. Wu Shicun, President of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, shares his observation on such issues as the intention and impact of the U.S. manipulation on the South China Sea issue and the broader China-U.S. relations.


1. Since July the U.S. has kept manoeuvring in the South China Sea. Despite raging Covid-19 and anti-racism protests at home, why the U.S. made frequent interventions on the South China Sea issue?

The U.S. has continuously stepped up its military and diplomatic actions in the South China Sea with a deep-rooted objective to contain China’s development. The U.S. does not want to see China may dominate the South China Sea in the future. Nor does it want to see stable relations between China and ASEAN.

To be frank, the U.S. has never relaxed its efforts to contain China through the South China Sea issue. Since it announced its return to the Asia-Pacific and introduced the “Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific” strategy, the U.S. has taken provocative military actions time and again in the South China Sea. Although it claims it holds no position on the sovereignty of the South China Sea, the U.S., in fact, makes active interventions and takes sides on the disputes over the South China Sea. By taking sides, the U.S. supports any country that provokes or confronts China on the South China Sea issue. This can be seen in the confrontation between China and the Philippines over the Huangyan Island in 2012, the Philippines’ initiation of the arbitration on its disputes with China over the South China Sea in 2013, and the incident of “981” oil rig between China and Vietnam in 2014. The U.S. State Department has issued a number of official position papers, pointing the finger at China and supporting other claimant countries.

It is puzzling that since the Covid-19 outbreak the U.S. has stepped up its military operations in the South China Sea. It has conducted six Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) so far this year, compared with four times in 2017, six times in 2018 and eight times in 2019. In addition, the U.S. military has conducted nearly 2,000 close-in reconnaissance operations on China from the air this year.

The U.S. has kept increasing its military and diplomatic input into the South China Sea amid deteriorating China-U.S. relations with the focus spreading or spilling over from trade, science and technology to the political and security field. China-U.S. relations have evolved from confrontation in specific sectors to across-the-board. Therefore, the South China Sea issue has become a major flash point between China and the U.S. On the South China Sea issue, the U.S maritime hegemony in the Western Pacific is at stake. That’s why the U.S. has spared no efforts in its military operations in the South China Sea and provocations against China despite Covid-19.


2. Does the U.S. administration has done this in order to shift pressure at home?

Americans on the street do not necessarily care about the series of recent provocations by the Trump administration against China in the South China Sea.

If the U.S. administration attempts to shift attention at home, it is most likely for the upcoming presidential election. To seek reelection, it has become “politically correct” to some extent to get tough with China on China-related issues. Intensified military operations and high-profile policy announcements on the South China Sea serve to show its toughness. Therefore, the U.S. operations in the South China Sea, once observed in the context of comprehensive confrontation between China and the U.S., will enable one to find that the U.S. intensified moves recently on issues related to Hong Kong, Xinjiang and even Taiwan are largely for the upcoming election at home.


3. Secretary Pompeo recently raised again the 2016 arbitration award initiated by the Philippines on its disputes with China over the South China Sea. Why did Secretary Pompeo suddenly give the endorsement to this ruling? Is there anything special in this U.S. support at this moment?

The arbitration on its disputes with China over the South China Sea was initiated by the Philippines and orchestrated by the U.S. The Philippine then government was nothing but a puppet, and Benigno Aquino III was used by the Americans to lodge this arbitration. This case was stage-managed by the U.S. who even helped package part of the final verdict. Therefore, out of the U.S. strategic interests, the ruling denied most of China's lawful and legitimate maritime rights and claims to the waters around Nansha Islands.

In the past four years since the verdict was made, the U.S. has never accepted China’s position on denying this ruling. Nor does it accept or agree the Chinese view of the verdict as “a piece of scrap paper”. The U.S. even attempts to revive the ruling in different ways. For three consecutive years from 2016 to 2018, the U.S., Japanese and Australian foreign ministers issued joint statements during their meetings on the sidelines of ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and Related Meetings. In essence, these announcements urged China to abide by the “verdict” and its outcomes.

Four years have passed and the U.S. is going to have another presidential election. Given the recent tensions of the South China Sea issue and new destabilizing factors there, it is no surprise that the U.S. State Secretary issued a statement on July 13 clamoring for the ruling and its outcomes.

The Philippines is another major factor when the U.S. raised this issue again now. The U.S. cannot accept the consensus between China and the Duterte government to resolve their disputes on the South China Sea through bilateral negotiations rather than based on the arbitration ruling. As President Duterte is approaching the second half of his term, the pro-U.S. and anti-China forces in this Southeast Asian country are rising. The U.S. wants to remind the international community of this arbitration and cheer up the pro-U.S. and anti-China forces in the Philippines.

In February, the Duterte government announced that it would terminate its Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S. On June 1, it announced the termination was suspended. This indicates the U.S. pressure and pro-U.S. forces in the Philippines have growing restraint on President Duterte in the second half of his term.


4. U.S. policy on the South China Sea kept evolving, from neutrality to limited intervention after the Meiji Reef incident in 1995, and to active intervention after Secretary Clinton’s speech in an ASEAN regional forum in July 2010.  Secretary Pompeo’s press statement this time indicates that the U.S. has completely abandoned its “neutral” position and adopted an opposite stand against China. Given the U.S. now is against China in whichever area possible, to what extent will the U.S. make active intervention in the South China Sea?

The U.S. has played nearly all the cards it can play on the South China Sea, with few new tricks. Nevertheless, in the next step, in addition to joint exercises with its allies and partners inside and outside this region, the U.S. is likely to make some moves.

First, the U.S. may add new military bases in the South China Sea region. For example, in addition to its current military bases in the Philippines and Singapore, the U.S. may make Vietnam its major military base, through port visits, for forward deployment and action in the South China Sea.

Second, the U.S. Coast Guard will make regular deployment and interaction in the South China Sea. The U.S. has already deployed two Coast Guard vessels in its Japanese base and under the unified command of the 7th Fleet. In the future, the U.S. Coast Guard will intensify its forays into the South China Sea and even conduct “ law enforcement” in contested areas there. However, according to international norms and widely-accepted international practices, coast guard of a coast state only conducts enforcement within its own exclusive economic zone. The U.S. is not a coastal state of the South China Sea and its “enforcement” is interference with others’ affairs.

The U.S. has regularized its FONOPs against China in the South China Sea. In addition to increasing its frequency, the U.S. may extend the coverage of its FONOPs to waters close to the Xisha Islands, the Nansha Islands and the Huangyan Island, and send two warships in one FONOP.  There are few new tricks the U.S. can come up with.

Some senior U.S. military officer once threatened to take military actions against the Nansha islands and reefs controlled by China, for example, using force and blowing out islands and reefs where China has conducted some construction. However, I estimate the U.S. military, so far, will not act so recklessly. Should the U.S. make such a move, it would mean war.

In its press statement, the U.S. extends open support to the positions and claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia to the South China Sea. This attempt to drive a wedge into the relations between China and these countries shows the U.S. has almost exhausted its tricks in the South China Sea.


5. What cards the U.S. still has on the South China Sea?

The U.S. has the following cards to play on the South China Sea.

First, the U.S. may rope in extra-regional countries, particularly its allies, to build a quasi-military block and conduct joint patrol in the South China Sea. The U.S. will pay a heavy price and it is not sustainable if it conducts FONOPs alone in the South China Sea. So, the U.S. is pushing allies and partners to come on board, which can share burden with the U.S. and keep military pressure on China. Such U.S. allies and partners as Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom and even India have not formally accepted the U.S. requests. But with the U.S. carrot and stick, we cannot exclude the possibility of their joint patrols with the U.S. in the South China Sea, as these countries also have their own interests there.

Trilateral naval exercise of US, Japan and Australia, July 21


Second, the U.S. will make regular deployment of its Coast Guard in the South China Sea. The U.S. always believes that the Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militias are “quasi-military forces”. These “grey zones” have made the Chinese and U.S. forces “asymmetrical” in the South China Sea. Once tensions are heightened between China and other claimants on the sea, the U.S. may take this opportunity to support claimants such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia and interfere in the conflicts in the South China Sea.

Third, the U.S. will intensify its FONOPs against China in more diverse ways in the South China Sea.

Fourth, the U.S. will spare no effort in colluding, supporting and instigating Vietnam when it follows the steps of the Philippines and lodges a new arbitration on its disputes with China over the South China Sea.


6. This month, the U.S. sent two aircraft carriers—the USS Reagan and Nimitz for exercises in the South China Sea. Given the ongoing severe Covid-19 outbreak at home, how significant it is for the U.S. to send two carriers to the South China Sea?

After six years, the U.S. military conducted dual-carrier exercises twice in one week earlier this month. I think it means three things.

First, to some extent, it was a rebound of the U.S. military operations in the South China Sea. From March to May this year, three U.S. carriers were quarantined in Guam, Yokosuka and San Diego due to Covid-19, leading to no presence of carrier in the Western Pacific. Once it has recovered, the U.S. intends to hold intensive dual-carrier operations to make up for its previous absence.

Second, hit by Covid-19, the U.S. wants to flex its muscle to show to its allies in this region that as the only superpower in the world, the U.S. is still capable of resisting the Chinese threat and protecting its allies and partners in this region and, once called for, is still willing to provide security protection.

Third, the U.S. wants to show its muscle to China. This is “gunboat diplomacy”.


7. Facing such a U.S. show of military power, what can China do?

Confronted with the U.S. muscle-flexing, China certainly has no shortage of countermeasures. The U.S. is keenly aware of this and its dual carriers would not act so recklessly as to take military actions against China.

US Navy dual-carrier operation, July 17


Therefore, the top priority for China is as follows. First, China should stay cool-headed and not act in a hurry. In particular, it should not follow and act to the tune of the U.S. This is the most important. The U.S. is running out of new substantive measures. Second, China should make concrete progress in building its own capacity. The U.S. dares to flex its muscle in the South China Sea and even at China’s doorstep, because China’s capacity is not strong enough to deter the U.S. unilateral and provocative actions. Therefore, China needs to integrate its existing forces on the sea with an eye to changing operational models in future maritime warfare. It should get ready for worsening situation in the South China Sea and develop deterrence through capacity building, with the aim to win without a fight.

Third, China needs to press ahead with the negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea with ASEAN countries, in order to put peace and stability of the South China Sea on a rules-based order.

Fourth, it is critical to have stable relations between China and ASEAN. The U.S. is loath to see ASEAN in good terms with China. In the first half of this year, ASEAN has overtaken the EU and become China’s largest trading partner. At the same time, China has been ASEAN’s biggest trading partner for 11 consecutive years. Steady progress in China-ASEAN relations will help stabilize the situation in the South China Sea and prevent the U.S. from stirring up trouble.


8. Will some claimant countries of the SCS take this opportunity and pretend as the U.S. pawns in an attempt to get extra profits at China’s expense?

Secretary Pompeo’s South China Sea position statement actually sent a wrong signal to countries around the South China Sea. Some countries may misunderstand that the U.S. will support them on some issues. In this statement, Mr. Pompeo touched upon Wan’an Tan (between China and Vietnam), some islands and reefs controlled by the Philippines (between China and the Philippines), and even Nankang Ansha, Beikang Ansha and Zengmu Ansha (between China and Malaysia), Brunei’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and Indonesia’s Natuna Besar. On the surface, Mr. Pompeo supports them on these issues, leading to the misconception among some countries that if they take unilateral and provocative actions in these areas the U.S. will support them. Then, they will act recklessly.

I’m afraid that some countries may make such misjudgments that China will not take strong countermeasures against their reckless actions backed by the U.S. That’s why I believe Secretary Pompeo’s statement will introduce some destabilizing factors to the South China Sea.


9. What consensus has been reached between China and ASEAN countries, particularly claimant countries like Vietnam and the Philippines on disputes over the South China Sea? On what issues disagreements remain?

We have reached consensus on many issues. On the bilateral level, a number of consultation mechanisms have been put in place. A bilateral consultation mechanism between the governments of China and Vietnam was established as early as in 1990s. China and Malaysia are exploring a similar mechanism. In 2017, China and the Philippines set up a consultation mechanism on the South China Sea, with five meetings held so far at the vice-ministerial level. Therefore, we must recognize that consensus outweighs difference over the South China Sea. The South China Sea has not fallen into great chaos thanks in some extent to restraint exercised by China and some other countries. These mechanisms have played a positive role as some unilateral actions were suspended or put aside after diplomatic consultations.

On the multilateral level, consensus has also been reached on many issues. For example, the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) was signed in 2002, which includes not taking actions to complicate the situation in the South China Sea. Parties have exercised restraint and abided by the DOC, which has created a favorable external environment for the negotiations on the COC.

Bilateral mechanisms are functioning and consensus exists on the multilateral mechanism. I believe this is the greatest stabilizing and positive factor.

Of course, there are differences as the South China Sea issue involves territorial disputes on islands and reefs as well as disputes on demarcation claims which cannot be resolved in the near future. It is unrealistic to expect there are no differences and no problems. It may become normal for one problem to pop up after another. Nevertheless, relevant parties can manage crisis and, if possible, conduct cooperation in low-sensitive areas.


10. How to see the July 12 statement by the Philippine Foreign Secretary that “the award (of the 2016 court victory) is non-negotiable”?

The Philippine government has never said that it would give up the award after the arbitration ruling on the South China Sea was made. China rejects the ruling; the Philippines does not say it will not abide by the verdict. For China, it does not accept claims and actions based on the arbitration ruling; for President Duterte, he has the practical need to improve relations with China and he is aware that China’s position is non-negotiable. China and the Philippines do not base their consultations on the arbitration ruling. In other words, the ruling is put aside for the time being. President Duterte did not raise this issue when he visited Beijing and met with Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping. But for President Duterte, it only means the arbitration ruling is put aside when the two countries discuss the South China Sea issue. It does not mean that the Philippines will abandon the award and will not abide by the ruling.

In fact, the Philippines has taken quite a few steps since the arbitration ruling was made four years ago. It has even amended its constitution to incorporate the arbitration ruling into the composition of its future territory. In fact, the Philippines attempts to consolidate the arbitral ruling through domestic legislation. So, it is natural for President Duterte to make a series of moves centered on the arbitration recently. Because the award is completely favorable towards the Philippines and completely against China. The ruling has fully accepted the Philippines’ claims and requests, while making sweeping denial of China’s legitimate interests and claims to the South China Sea. So no Philippine politician dares to give up the arbitral award.

On the fourth anniversary of the ruling, the Philippine Foreign Secretary made an open and tough statement. We must pay attention to the U.S. factor at play. The Philippine Foreign Secretary made such an open statement, with this U.S. factor. On June 1, the Philippines announced the suspension of terminating its Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S.; on June 9, the Philippine Defense Secretary visited the Zhongye Island; and on July 12, the Philippine Foreign Secretary made a statement in which he raised the arbitral ruling again and urged China to abide by the ruling. On top of the U.S. factor, President Duterte has entered the second half of his six-year term ending in 2022. The pro-U.S. forces in the Philippines are growing, while President Duterte’s influence and power base at home is diminishing. Given the broader situation in the South China Sea, China is in a relatively unfavorable international environment, from the Philippine perspective. It believes it will pay little price, if any, to get tough on China. So, with all the above factors combined, the Philippine Foreign Secretary made such a funny statement.


11. Recently the U.S. smeared China’s fight against Covid-19 and imposed sanctions on Huawei. Does this series of moves, from science, technology to military, mean the U.S. has launched a comprehensive strategy internationally against China’s rise? How should China respond?

I don’t think we should hold any illusion on China-U.S. relations as the U.S. has designated China as “strategic rival” in its 2017 National Security Strategy. This indicates in China-U.S. relations, we cannot say a “new cold war” has begun, but confrontation and competition have prevailed. As things stand now, China-U.S. relations are no longer a combination of competition and cooperation with emphasis on the latter or a kind of co-optition—both competition and cooperation as advocated by some academics. I believe China-U.S. relations have fully entered a stage of competition and confrontation, which I define as “all-round confrontation”, as we cannot find a field that the two countries can still work together.

This has never happened before since the two countries established diplomatic relations more than 40 years ago. The consultation mechanisms between the two governments have basically come to a halt, with no mechanism still at work and no dialogue held according to pre-determined agenda.

When we remind the Americans that dialogues be held according to some mechanisms or want to engage the Americans on some issues, they completely ignore us. As the Americans have designated China as a “comprehensive strategic rival”, we should not hold any illusion on the U.S. If President Trump is reelected, China should get ready for further deterioration in China-U.S. relations and make preparation for struggle in the next four years.

If the Democratic candidate Joseph Biden takes the White House, China should make assessment on the future direction of China-U.S. relations. But one thing will not change—the U.S. has designated China as a strategic rival. The U.S. will continue its pressure on China. My personal assessment on the future China-U.S. relations is to dispel illusion and get ready for struggle.


12. As the situation in the South China Sea heats up, how much likely will an incident be accidentally triggered?

I reckon strategic decision makers in both countries are not prepared for a war in the South China Sea. China-U.S. relations cannot afford a war there. Under modern warfare conditions, neither of the two nuclear powers will find it easy to give the first shot.

Any war will be a disaster to regional peace and stability as well as to China-U.S. relations. That’s why both parties are testing the red line of the other. The U.S. is not sure about China’s red line in the South China Sea. U.S. warships are making encroachment to find where China’s red line is. The U.S. is not sure about when the U.S. can challenge China and when not.

Chinese academics, often argue that China makes its red line clear to the U.S. Recently, I participated in a track-two virtual dialogue with American counterparts. Chinese and American participants agreed that China and the U.S. should make clear to the other its red line, so that they will not challenge. No one wants the mid-air collision in 2001, a great setback in bilateral relations, to happen again. Should it happen today, it would lead to different consequences.

Given its forces and hardware deployed for the South China Sea, China surely would not swallow insults and humiliations, because such an era has gone forever. As things stand now, I believe the two countries need to activate their existing mechanisms on crisis management and try their best to prevent accidents.

As the situation in the South China Sea evolves, I am afraid that chances are growing for an accident to be triggered.

First, the U.S. warships and aircrafts have come to the South China Sea more often. Despite some mechanisms in place, the situation is very dangerous under specific circumstances. For example, on September 30, 2018, the Chinese destroyer Lanzhou and the destroyer USS Decatur came within 41 meters in a close encounter in the waters off the Nansha Islands. A collision is very likely to happen and cause crew causalities due to unprofessional operation in high-speed movement of ships. Therefore, maxim efforts should be made to prevent crisis, prevent a crisis from escalating into a conflict, and prevent a conflict spiraling out of control. Under specific circumstances, these mechanisms may fail and the possibility could not be excluded for an accidentally triggered incident.

Second, in addition to regularly visiting vessels, the U.S. has Coast Guard ships in the South China Sea. So does China. There is no crisis management mechanism between the two coast guards as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) is only applied to the military vessels and aircraft. A crisis management mechanism has not been established yet for coast guard vessels. As the U.S. Coast Guard ships come to the South China Sea and the Chinese Coast Guard vessels conduct enforcement there, what rules should be observed when they encounter? If poorly managed, a collision could happen.

In this sense, chances are growing for an accidentally triggered incident between China and the U.S. As the U.S. intensifies its military operation in the South China Sea, China will adopt corresponding countermeasures, such as tracking and monitoring as well as warning and expulsion. The more intensifying U.S. military operations, the more chances for accidentally triggered incidents.

Wu Shicun

Wu Shicun has a PhD in history and is president and senior research fellow of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), vice president of China Institute for Free Trade Ports Studies, deputy director of the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies, Nanjing University.