By Phillip Orchard

It’s been an awfully eventful year in the South China Sea – and it’s not even halfway over. In just the few first months of 2018, U.S., Japanese, Australian and Singaporean warships paraded their power around the waters by making several high-profile port visits to the Philippines and Vietnam. Meanwhile, in an uncustomarily overt show of military force, China launched a series of live-fire naval and air force exercises, including one involving at least 40 warships. In late March, the U.S. conducted a freedom of navigation operation, sailing a warship near a Chinese-controlled artificial island in disputed waters to discredit Beijing’s legal basis for its territorial claims. The same week, Chinese warplanes chased off Philippine surveillance aircraft monitoring developments in the disputed Spratly archipelago, even as the governments in Beijing and Manila were agreeing to jointly pursue and extract oil and natural gas in waters just off Philippine shores. Two days later, Vietnam canceled its second foreign-backed drilling project in disputed waters in less than a year. Both the Philippines and Vietnam were capitulating to repeated Chinese threats to disrupt any drilling project undertaken with another outside power.

But the list of events doesn’t end there. In early April, the Pentagon released satellite imagery showing that China had installed radar-jamming equipment on Fiery Cross Reef – one of several artificial islands China has gradually been militarizing in the Spratly archipelago, which are located, as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte put it, just a jet ski ride from Philippine shores – and landed military transport planes on neighboring Mischief Reef. The same day, 20 U.S. warplanes took off from and returned to the nearby USS Roosevelt aircraft carrier in just 20 minutes, an impressive display of operational tempo intended to demonstrate to the region just how far China has to go to achieve parity with the Americans. Shortly thereafter, China’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier started sea trials, underscoring the remarkable pace of China’s own naval modernization.

More recently, on April 17, shortly after Duterte returned from a trip to China, the U.S. finally broke ground on base facilities in the Philippines, agreed to under a 2014 pact that Duterte had once threatened to cancel. (He also threatened to cancel the annual U.S.-Philippine Balikatan naval exercises, which will formally open next week with expanded Australian and Japanese participation.)

Two days later, Chinese warships had an unexplained “encounter” with three Australian warships sailing from Manila to Vietnam. Then, a week ago, Chinese researchers proposed replacing the infamous “nine-dash line,” which traces Beijing’s sweeping but nebulous claims in the South China Sea, with a fixed boundary more clearly outlining the area in which China would have exclusive rights to fish, drill for oil, station military assets and so forth. (Beijing often uses “researchers” to submit contentious proposals and gauge international reaction before deciding whether to adopt them formally.) Finally, at last weekend’s annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, while U.S. bombers were cruising over the South China Sea, Chinese pressure once again prevented Southeast Asian leaders from demonstrating even a shred of unity in opposition to Chinese assertiveness. Member states succeeded only in issuing yet another watered down communique that addressed the South China Sea disputes in oblique terms.

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At issue, as always, is whether any of this will amount to more than shadowboxing. It’s difficult to say for sure, considering how performative so much of the behavior in the South China Sea can be. Perhaps the clearest signal came last week from Adm. Philip Davidson, the incoming chief of U.S. Pacific Command, who told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” Equally notable were Davidson’s milquetoast recommendations to counter China’s expansion: more freedom of navigation operations, more development of advanced weaponry, and a steadier U.S. presence in the region. His recommendations echoed the case made by the commander of the USS Carl Vinson on a visit to Manila in February: that a consistent U.S. presence is what underpins regional security. Neither called for the U.S. to actually do anything to roll back the Chinese advance.

Davidson’s comments make sense. China is the only country that seems to know exactly what it wants in the South China Sea and that has settled on a strategy for getting it. Beijing is betting that it can draw Southeast Asian states firmly into its orbit, eventually securing access to the Greater Pacific Ocean merely by never giving an inch and creating a sense that Chinese domination is inevitable. The U.S. wants to counter this impression with occasional shows of force intended to demonstrate how much better its Navy is, while nudging littoral states to unite against the Chinese. But a demonstration of force isn’t the same thing as a demonstration of willingness to use force on another state’s behalf, and the U.S. has too much to do elsewhere to supply the resources needed for an anti-Chinese coalition among Southeast Asian states to have any teeth. Southeast Asian states are trying to play all sides to their benefit, but they are too wary of Chinese coercion, too uncertain about U.S. interest in intervening on their behalf, too weak militarily and too internally divided to act decisively in either direction.

So to what degree does the U.S. actually care about Chinese control of the South China Sea, as Davidson put it, in all scenarios short of war? The problem for Southeast Asia is this: Chinese dominion over what littoral states do in the South China Sea’s waters isn’t actually that much of a threat to U.S. interests in the big picture, at least for the time being. The main U.S. interest in the South China Sea dispute is preventing a conflict or an erosion of maritime law that threatens to disrupt seaborne trade. Some 30 percent of global maritime trade and about half of global oil tanker shipments pass through the waters each year. But so long as the U.S. can block Chinese traffic through the first island chain – the series of islands off China’s coast that stretch from Japan to Indonesia – and through the Strait of Malacca, China can’t risk stopping traffic in the contested waters. The U.S. also cares about things like rules-based order and the narrow material interests of littoral states, but it has little interest in what would inevitably be a costly war to defend them. And it cares about maintaining a balance between East Asia’s larger powers, but it would like this burden to fall on regional partners like Japan, Australia and India as much as possible – countries that have no more apparent interest in going to war over the drilling rights of Vietnam and the Philippines.

The risk of this approach is that, over the long term, it could dramatically raise the cost of a U.S. intervention to address issues it does care about, such as sea lane control. China’s military modernization will narrow the gap with the U.S. somewhat, particularly in an area where the Chinese would have home-field advantage, where it could amass forces and supplies quickly beneath the umbrella of its mainland-based missiles and air power. And if Southeast Asian states feel that U.S. indifference has given them no choice but to accept Chinese regional domination, it would undermine the United States’ regional position altogether since it would prevent Washington from using the first island chain to block the Chinese. Notably, Davidson also warned that China’s domination of the South China Sea will allow it to “extend its influence thousands of miles to the south and project power deep into Oceania” and “use these bases to challenge U.S. presence in the region.” And if the U.S. concludes that a clash with China is inevitable, it’d have an interest in pushing back before China makes it even more costly to do so.

These are long-term threats, ones that the combination of China’s own internal woes and, say, Japan’s re-emergence may very well derail. But what we’re seeing in the South China Sea today are preparations grounded in the assumption that the fragile status quo won’t necessarily hold forever.

Phillip Orchard
Phillip Orchard is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Orchard spent nearly six years at Stratfor, working as an editor and writing about East Asian geopolitics. He’s spent more than six years abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where he’s had formative, immersive experiences with the problems arising from mass political upheaval, civil conflict and human migration. Mr. Orchard holds a master’s degree in Security, Law and Diplomacy from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he focused on energy and national security, Chinese foreign policy, intelligence analysis, and institutional pathologies. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish and some Thai and Lao.