By Phillip Orchard
Defense chiefs from more than 40 countries gathered at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last weekend. Such high-profile gatherings usually come and go without producing any meaningful outcomes, but two emerging realities were on display at this year’s event. The first: Beijing is losing the rhetorical battle over the nature of its rise. A dominant theme in Singapore was that China has little interest in preserving the established order, and it’s becoming less and less useful to pretend otherwise. The second: Indo-Pacific states aren’t waiting around for the U.S. to contain China on their behalf, but uncertainty about the U.S. is breeding reluctance to form a cohesive front.
In his keynote speech, for example, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi obliquely criticized China’s disregard for the rules-based order and said the U.S.-India relationship is becoming a pillar of regional stability, but he also decried the U.S. retreat into protectionism and warned against a return to great power competition. The U.S., Japan and Australia agreed on the need for greater international cooperation in the South China Sea but didn’t hint at a plan of action. France and the U.K. announced plans to conduct new freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, but these patrols do nothing to slow the Chinese advance in the disputed waters. Singapore said China’s military buildup and the U.S. retreat into protectionism were equal threats to the status quo. The recently revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – intended to lay the groundwork for a coalition between Japan, India, Australia and the U.S. – was barely mentioned. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said China’s recent installations of missiles and bombers on its man-made islands would be met with consequences and insisted that the U.S. was in the region to stay, but he declined to elaborate on what any of that means in practice.
For China, which sent only a midlevel delegation to face the fire, this heralds a deeper retreat into diplomatic isolation from its Indo-Pacific counterparts. It has little choice but to double down on the strategy that got it to this point, however alienating it may prove to be. For everyone else, well, talk is cheap. Forging a consensus on the nature of the Chinese challenge is one thing. Forging a coherent response is quite another – though there are hints that the U.S. may be preparing to match word to deed.
The Tide Begins to Turn
Since the beginning of the year, the hints of a backlash against Beijing’s narrative – that its rise will be mutually beneficial to its neighbors – have been bubbling up across the Indo-Pacific. For example, there’s been a growing drumbeat of warnings that China’s One Belt, One Road initiative is luring poorer countries into “debt traps,” which Beijing could exploit to, say, secure naval access to the far-flung deep-water ports it is funding. Strategically important China-backed infrastructure projects in Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Nepal and elsewhere have since been put up for review by host governments. In Australia, China is fending off a backlash over purported influence operations targeting Australian civil society groups, universities and, according to Australia’s spy chief, “every level of government.” Recently, U.S. and Canadian intelligence warned that Chinese infiltration in both Australia and New Zealand is putting the intelligence-sharing pact among those countries (plus the U.K.) at risk.
Europe, meanwhile, has largely rebuffed China’s attempts to portray itself as a champion of free trade while the U.S. targets friends and foes alike with protectionist grenades. Europe has instead echoed U.S. warnings about nefarious Chinese investments and technology theft. Even the Philippine government, whose rhetoric about Chinese power has become markedly fatalistic, has begun to harden its position. Last week, Manila laid out three “red lines” in the South China Sea and warned of war if China crossed them. The Philippines also recently resumed construction on its largest holding in the Spratlys and, in April, finally broke ground on projects, implementing a landmark 2014 deal giving the U.S. rotational access to Philippine bases.
China’s boilerplate defenses – that suspicions about its infrastructure investments are unfounded and cynical, that the blowback to its efforts to win friends in Australia is hysterical, and that any country with its experience with foreign exploitation would build a protective buffer on its periphery – aren’t entirely groundless. It rightfully fears a Japan-U.S.-India-Australia coalition that could sever its access to critical trade routes through the first island chain or the Strait of Malacca. One Belt, One Road is more about keeping the Chinese economy humming and opening new trade outlets than bullying smaller states into serving as a network of naval bases. It is encircled by powers capable of bringing the economy to its knees. The Communist Party of China has staked its legitimacy with the public on a pledge to make the country a great power against even greater odds.
In other words, China’s behavior is largely a symptom of its enduring weakness. But this doesn’t change the reality that China’s historical memory and persistent vulnerabilities are compelling a degree of assertiveness that makes it difficult for its neighbors to put much faith in Beijing’s intentions.
A More Robust Response
Regional states certainly aren’t sitting on their hands. At the Shangri-La Dialogue, India announced new trilateral exercises with Singapore as well as plans to involve Association of Southeast Asian Nations members. This comes less than a week after India struck a deal with Indonesia that could give the Indian navy access to a deep-water port at the mouth of the Malacca, and two weeks after it launched its first-ever maritime drills with Vietnam. Australia, too, has begun poking around in the South China Sea and deepening defense ties with regional states. Japan has been the most active, ramping up security assistance and strategic aid in Southeast Asia, shedding internal constraints on its military, and spearheading efforts to revive the Quad and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
To an extent, the mounting sense of urgency in Tokyo, New Delhi and Canberra to contain Chinese assertiveness stems from their shared anxieties about U.S. commitments. But only the U.S. can fill in the gaps in each of these states’ naval capabilities and transform the grouping from a loose coalition to a dynamic alliance in a conflict. This extends to the economic realm as well. Coordinated efforts to counter Chinese coercion in One Belt, One Road target states and shield each other from retaliation would be much more robust with the world’s largest consumer market and investment source on board. Mattis acknowledged as much in Singapore and in January’s National Defense Strategy.
More than anything, states fear committing to something that exposes them to Chinese retaliation and then being hung out to dry by the United States. This problem is particularly evident among Southeast Asian states, whose participation would be invaluable in an effort to contain China, but who have the most to lose to China and the least ability to do anything about it. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has a point when he says that U.S. disinterest in a war over Chinese-occupied reefs off the Philippine coast has given Manila – a U.S. treaty ally – little choice but to comply when Beijing dictates terms on fishing, resource extraction and so forth. Vietnam’s recent cancellation of two foreign-backed drilling projects on the fringes of China’s territorial claims, reportedly under threat from Beijing, spoke louder than words. The White House’s threats to sanction states for purchasing Russian arms – critical to military modernization among weaker Indo-Pacific states – certainly doesn’t build faith in U.S. motivations.
The U.S. is hinting that a more robust response is forthcoming. In mid-May, the U.S. pulled China’s invitation to the Rim of the Pacific exercise, the world’s largest annual multilateral naval exercise – a move Mattis called merely a small consequence for Chinese actions. Notably, Vietnam (which agreed to ramp up maritime cooperation with the U.S. on May 25), Malaysia and potentially Taiwan will participate for the first time in China’s stead. Last week, a top U.S. general talked openly about the U.S. ability to destroy Chinese military installations in the South China Sea, and Mattis said the U.S. is planning a “steady drumbeat” of naval exercises near Chinese holdings in the disputed waters. On June 5, Reuters reported that the U.S. is mulling sailing a carrier group through the Taiwan Strait for the first time since 2007. Also this week, the U.S. conducted a freedom of navigation operation involving two warships for the first time, sailing near Chinese holdings in the Paracels, and then flew two B-52s over the Spratlys. The Quad finally held its second meeting on June 7.
Chinese weapons on South China Sea islands may not threaten core U.S. interests, and they may be useless in a war with the U.S., but they are certainly undermining U.S. partnerships with littoral states. If the U.S. thinks preserving credibility is important enough to roll back Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea, it would be a lot easier to do so sooner rather than later. And if the North Korea standoff is soon settled in a manner the U.S. can live with, the U.S. would be better positioned to stomach a major collapse in relations with China.
This may be what’s behind the newfound willingness in exceedingly cautious countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia to stick their necks out. Similarly, per new satellite imagery obtained by Fox News, China has at least temporarily removed some surface-to-air missile systems from Woody Island in the Paracels – suggesting it may think the U.S. is serious about giving its South China Sea policy some teeth. But as always, the devil will be in the details. Freedom of navigation operations are good PR, but they are not an actual deterrent and never were intended to be. The same goes for winning a rhetorical battle without any appetite for a risky fight over the facts on the ground.