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South China Sea: United States Stiffens its Stances on China’s Conflict Escalation

Paper No. 6106                                 Dated 26-Apr-2016

By Dr Subhash Kapila

China seems to be woefully oblivious to major lessons of United States belated entry in two Global wars of 20th Century to ensure global security, as it pursues incessant conflict escalation in the South China Sea.

The major lessons of United States belated military interventions against Germany’s aggression and conflict escalation preceding World War I and World War II were that when the United States perceives that militaristic and aggressive nations are crossing unacceptable ‘red lines’ endangering global security and stability, then the United States, militarily acts to strike ‘hard blows’ and to decisive effect.

The United States seems to have been cornered by China’s uninterrupted conflict escalation in South China Sea into a corner where the United States may be left with no other options but to restrain a military expansionist China with a judicious mix of political, financial, and strategic pressure- points preceding the last but inevitable military option against China to safeguard Indo Pacific and global security in which the United States is the predominantly vital stakeholder.

China seems to have overplayed its military hand by misreading United States stances and reactions on China’s expansion of man-made islands in the South China Sea to ensure Chinese full-spectrum military domination of the South China Sea maritime ‘global commons’ at the expense of regional and global security.

The United States in 2016 has finally decided that it should be made clear to China what are American intentions in the South China even though the United States declines to take a position on the sovereignty of disputed islands in the South China Sea. The American intentions have been lucidly and firmly asserted at multiple apex levels of the United States, including President Obama.

US Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter in a recent BBC interview while visiting Vietnam declared that the United Sates “would continue to do what we have done for decades since World War II ended----by being the pivotal military power in the region which we are and will continue to be. Nothing will stop the United States military operations at all.”

Hidden and implicit in the United States is the stark message that the United States would not yield to China’s conflict escalation in the South China Sea even though that such a response has been belatedly made. The crucial US intention enshrined in this assertion is not of the oft-repeated ‘freedom of navigation’ but that of a far more overarching intention to maintain United States ‘pivotal  military role’ in Asia and which would include by implication restraining South China Sea conflict escalation by China beyond unacceptable limits.

The Pentagon is said to have been tasked to work out US contingency military operational plans to deal with all eventualities that may emerge in the South China Sea as China may tend to persist in misreading US intentions.

The United States has been at it for a number of years including concentration of seven Aircraft Carrier Groups in the Western Pacific. The United States may have underplayed its hand in the last few years awaiting the completion of re-balancing its strategic postures and positioning its military forces in the region.

The United States evidently has put into play a mix of political, economic, strategic and military strategies to deal with the military turbulence generated by China’s aggressive military brinkmanship in South China Sea conflict escalation.

Politically, the strategic polarisation induced by China in Asia as a result of its conflict escalation has wonderfully played into United States hands. ASEAN ambivalence on the South China Sea has visibly reduced. South East Asian ‘fence-sitters’ are having second thoughts. President Obama’s holding the US-ASEAN Summit in the United States recently is an ample indicator to this effect.

In fact, in many of my international presentations on the subject, I had persistently pointed out that what American diplomacy could not attain in years stood presented by China on a platter to the United States in terms of Asian strategic polarisation favouring the United States through its South China Sea conflict escalation.

In politico-strategic moves the United States has not only reinforced its existing bilateral military alliances in the region but also gathered in its fold new strategic partners/cooperative nations like India and Vietnam. United States has resorted to building the military capacity of the Philippines to withstand Chinese aggression in the South China Sea area. The United States has also entered into agreements with the Philippines for repositioning sizeable US military presence in the Philippines on rotational basis and joint exercises.

The United States has also raised the profile of its military engagement with Vietnam across the entire military spectrum. Reports also indicate that the US may also pre-position military supplies in Vietnam and Cambodia, ostensibly for disaster-relief operations but which can also be operable in any military contingency generated by China.

In terms of US-specific military responses, the US Navy has been charged with enhancing its Freedom of Navigation Patrols in close proximity of China’s new man-made islands in the South China Sea, to dispute Chinese sovereignty. US Aircraft Carrier Groups are regularly positioned in the South China Sea both for embedding US military presence in the South China Sea and for joint exercises with countries like Japan, Australia and India.

Japan has been encouraged by the United States to be more assertive in the South China Sea in the form of Japanese Navy cruises, joint exercises and visits to Vietnamese ports. Presently two Japanese Navy ships are visiting Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.

Economically, the United States active sponsorship of the Trans-Pacific Partnership needs to be viewed in the same light aiming at lessening the economic dependence of regional countries on China.

The United States has a host of instruments of power which it can bring into play directly by itself and through its Asian military allies and strategic partners. Perceptively, it seems to be engaged in a calibrated strengthening of its responses against China’s aggressive brinkmanship in the South China Sea. The United States seems to be unleashing enough strategic ropes to China to hang itself. But when the crunch moment, when and if it comes, one wonders whether China could prevail over the United States might and further combined with those of its Allis and strategic partners .By then, China would not even have time to ruminate that it had overplayed its hand in escalation of South China Sea disputes. Like Germany, China would have to fight-it out with the United States to a destructive end or end up in capitulation. Both in the end would entail deep humiliation of China.

Concluding, one would fervently hope that China learns the lessons of the military history of the 20th Century where global effort in terms of protecting global security coalesced around the United States against a militaristic and aggressive Germany. The 21st Century does not seem to be facilitating the emergence of the “China Moment” despite its President’s grandiose China Dream and its maritime and ground Silk Highways.

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