In the past couple weeks, Washington’s tone on China has gotten noticeably tougher. In a speech Oct. 4, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence outlined a litany of grievances with China – from trade to technology theft to Beijing’s purported attempts to put the political hurt on Donald Trump. He didn’t shy away from the areas where U.S. and Chinese military ambitions are bumping up against each other, either, giving special attention to Chinese expansionism in the South and East China seas. This followed a Sept. 24 report in Axios, in which unnamed White House officials touted an impending administrationwide pressure campaign against China, involving the departments of Treasury, Commerce and Defense. And on the same day as Pence’s speech, unnamed Pentagon officials told CNN that the U.S. Navy was preparing to do its part, formulating plans to carry out a “global show of force” to counter Chinese military actions, starting next month.

U.S. activity in waters China claims as its own has indeed picked up in recent weeks. The U.S. has sent warships past and warplanes over the disputed islands China occupies and conducted drills in Indo-Pacific waters with a range of allies, including Japan and even the United Kingdom. On Sept. 30, a Chinese warship acted in an “unsafe and unprofessional” manner, according to the Pentagon, coming within 150 feet (45 meters) of the USS Decatur during a U.S. freedom of navigation operation. But while the U.S. is clearly trying to squeeze China at nearly all its pressure points, the South China Sea is unlikely to play a front-line role in this effort. The U.S. has neither the interest nor the ability to link the South China Sea to its other points of contention with Beijing. Posturing on the high seas won’t give way to a real crisis until China determines it can no longer live with the status quo.

More Bark Than Bite

Until the past few months, the South China Sea had received relatively scant attention from the Trump administration. There have been the occasional warnings to Beijing that the U.S. will no longer tolerate its militarization of disputed islands. And there have been the periodic freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, near China-held reefs in contested parts of the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos. As under past administrations, however, these have amounted to far more bark than bite – certainly nothing substantive enough to limit Beijing’s continuing buildup in the waters.

The dirty little secret is the U.S. doesn’t actually care all that much about checking China’s expansion in the South China Sea. The core U.S. interests in the waters are keeping maritime traffic – whether commercial or naval – flowing and upholding international maritime law and norms, but also avoiding getting dragged into a war not of its choosing. So long as the U.S. can cut off Chinese maritime traffic in chokepoints along the first island chain and in the Strait of Malacca, Washington will be able to bring Beijing to its knees. China has near-zero interest in testing the U.S. on this point by cutting off maritime trade in the South China Sea – even in the unlikely event that it finds reason to do so – or by trying to push the U.S. from the region by force. Attempting to shut down sea lanes would be an act of desperation. It’s not the kind of thing China could threaten to do to gain leverage against the U.S. in scenarios short of war.

To be sure, China’s placement of anti-ship and anti-air missiles, naval assets, and warplanes on its artificial islands off the coasts of Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia – in combination with its onshore missiles, air power, and growing space, cyber and undersea capabilities – could make it harder for the U.S. to operate freely in China-claimed waters. They are also making it easier for Beijing to dictate terms for what its weaker neighbors do there (such as drilling or fishing), posing a credibility problem for the U.S. among its regional allies. Dislodging the Chinese will get only more difficult as their missile capabilities and ranges improve.

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But on the whole, the U.S. is operating from a position of strength. The islands would not last long in an all-out war with the U.S. if push came to shove, and they won’t solve the fundamental problem posed by U.S. naval strength around the chokepoints anytime soon. The fact that the U.S. has allies like Australia and, most important, Japan with major interests in keeping the waters open, while China lacks any major security partners, only bolsters the U.S. position. Washington can afford to play a long game – one that allows it to avoid the messy business of refereeing territorial disputes among regional states – centered on constructing a multilateral coalition to contain Chinese assertiveness, helping local countries to develop their own capabilities, and, if necessary, trying to blunt China’s military trajectory by depriving it of the riches needed to continue its buildup.

Challenging China

That the U.S. is now apparently planning a show of force in the South and East China seas does not reflect a shift in its strategy. Rather, the White House has simply decided that it’s time to challenge China on multiple fronts to try to alter its course. In reality, though, this campaign is focused primarily on the economic front.

The main problem for the U.S. is that it has few options, short of a direct conflict, for ramping up pressure in the South China Sea and thus little leverage to gain by trying to link security and trade. Freedom of navigation operations are important for reinforcing international law and maritime norms, and they give the U.S. the appearance of doing something in the disputed waters, but they are not an actual deterrent and never were meant to be. They don’t generate leverage or, technically, even assert that the U.S. objects to China’s occupying the disputed reefs. They have not yet altered Beijing’s strategy or behavior in any discernible way. Neither have occasional exercises in the South China Sea.

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China sees its islands as an integral part of its anti-access/area denial strategy. To get the Chinese to vacate them, Washington would need to convince Beijing that the U.S. is ready to remove it by force. War with a nuclear power over the South China Sea would be a costly and ill-conceived way for the U.S. to execute a strategy aimed at containing China primarily by sapping the country of its economic dynamism. China won’t swap its security for trade concessions, and the U.S. won’t offer this deal anyway.

Short of force, the U.S. has some small ways it can attach costs to China’s actions in the South China Sea. For starters, it can boost its security assistance to Southeast Asian littoral states and better equip them to defend themselves. It also wouldn’t be surprising if the U.S. were to sanction Chinese firms involved in island-building. Still, neither of these actions would do much to deter Beijing and, again, neither is important enough to either side to really factor into the trade fight.

More of the Same

And so, we’re probably looking at more of the same largely symbolic measures in the South China Sea that we’ve been seeing there in fits and starts over the past decade. Pence hinted that this was the case in his speech, saying more or less what the U.S. always says about the South China Sea: “The United States Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand.” That means more FONOPs, more exercises, more shadowboxing. These won’t do much directly to alter the status quo in the South China Sea. But that’s not to say things can’t get messy.

Even if the U.S. moves are mostly symbolic, they still require a commensurate response from Beijing for two reasons. The first is that the Communist Party has tied its political legitimacy to the twin narratives that the disputed waters are indisputably China’s and that only unquestioned party rule can make the country powerful enough to reassert control over the area and protect China from the imperial powers that historically have humiliated it. It can try to censor coverage of U.S. shows of force in the waters to contain pressure from nationalists and the People’s Liberation Army, but it cannot go meekly into the night.

The second reason relates to China’s strategic imperatives: To blow a hole in the U.S. containment line, Beijing needs to convince countries along the first island chain, particularly the Philippines and Taiwan, that Chinese dominance over its littoral waters is a fait accompli. In other words, China needs to persuade these states that while the U.S. may parade its warships around the South China Sea, it won’t actually come to their defense in a crisis, much less guard their access to resources in their exclusive economic zones. If littoral states want oil, fish, and a security and economic benefactor whose regional interests will never waver, they’re better off ejecting the Americans and throwing their lot in with the Middle Kingdom, according to Beijing. Offers of aid and investment make that pill easier to swallow.

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For China to satisfy its domestic political imperatives, responding merely with its own largely symbolic measures, such as drills, may be sufficient. Shadowboxing can easily be spun in state media as daring displays of resolve and deterrence. Sending a forceful message to Southeast Asia, on the other hand, is a somewhat different matter. To expose Washington’s security guarantees as hollow, or at least tailored to narrow U.S. interests, China needs, at minimum, to stay its recent course. That means denying regional states access to their littoral resources and building fortresses on the islands they claim – and even this risks stoking nationalist political pressure in the countries that could compel their governments to try to take matters into their own hands. If Beijing thinks it needs a bigger play to drive its message home in the littoral states, it may try to call the U.S. bluff elsewhere – say, around the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, potential Chinese reclamation of which the Obama administration set as a red line in 2016.

In short, the U.S. is content with the way things are in the South China Sea. It doesn’t really need to escalate matters there to contain China comprehensively, and it couldn’t do so anyway without going to war. China can’t live with the status quo forever; eventually it will need to break out of the box geography and U.S. naval power have put it in. But because the U.S. has no pressing reason to threaten China’s trade access, Beijing can bide its time. If it makes a move on a flashpoint like the Scarborough Shoal, it will do so because it’s reasonably certain that it is indeed calling Washington’s bluff. Failing an accident or a gross miscalculation, it’ll just be two sharks circling each other in the South China Sea, with little appetite for a fight.

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.