People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy sailors. Photo: Wikimedia commons

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy sailors. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Beijing’s moves in the South China Sea need to be met with an assertive ‘cost imposing’ strategy that also restores regional order.

The US Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea (SCS) on 27 October, involving the destroyer USS Lassen sailing inside the 12-mile territorial waters claimed by China around Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands, had been widely-anticipated for quite some time.

Earlier this year, it became apparent that Beijing was not only engaged in extremely large-scale ‘reclamation’ activities around some of the features that it occupied in the SCS but was also militarising them through the addition of runways, radar stations and anti-aircraft batteries. Yet, some Western observers have criticised the US operation as unnecessarily provocative to China.

However, the FONOP constitutes what should be only the first step in a necessary but somewhat belated response to a dangerous decay of regional order in the Asia-Pacific littoral.

China’s behaviour in the South China Sea over the last several years – which has also seen the harassment of Southeast Asian claimants’ fishing vessels, maritime enforcement agency vessels and oil-exploration rigs – fits into a broader pattern of assertiveness around its littoral. This has included efforts to undermine the unity of ASEAN, attempts to coerce Japan over contested territory in the East China Sea, and large-scale Chinese naval modernisation.

China has also tried to leverage its economic power for geopolitical purposes, and Beijing seems to be trying to create a new regional order in the Asia-Pacific in which it plays a dominant role.

Many policy-makers and opinion-formers in the region – particularly in Japan and Southeast Asia – have become alarmed by China’s apparent disregard for international law (and specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS) in staking its maritime claims. Also worrying, is the sense conveyed by Beijing that ‘might equals right’.

Some in the policy community – not only in Southeast Asian countries, but also in Australia and the US – think that a recognised sphere of influence for China in its Asia-Pacific littoral is inevitable. The facts that China’s land-reclamation and militarisation in the SCS have been largely uncontested and are widely accepted as irreversible, that the US and regional governments have appeared unwilling to run the risk of escalation, and that ASEAN’s response to China’s regional assertiveness has been half-hearted have all fed into a narrative that exaggerates China’s strategic rise and power, encouraging those who argue that regional leadership should be ‘shared’, and that China should effectively be ceded a dominant role in the SCS.

Contrary to this prematurely accommodating narrative, we believe that long-term stability in the East Asian littoral will critically depend on the ability of the United States, its allies and regional partners to develop and execute an effective ‘cost imposing’ strategy in response to China’s coercive behaviour.

China still cares about negative responses to its actions, particularly if it involves more than one country. Moreover, it is time to recognise more clearly the existing obstacles in the way of China’s effort to dominate the East and Southeast Asian littoral.

For example, even if China’s current economic slowdown proves to be only temporary, resource constraints may still limit China’s capacity to develop expensive military power-projection forces. Indeed, capability shortfalls persist, especially in the People’s Liberation Army’s navy and air force. If the US became directly involved, China’s navy would be unlikely to prevail in the event of a naval clash in the South China Sea – a fact which must be well-known among China’s leaders.

As well, China’s behaviour in the South China Sea has already incurred substantial costs for Beijing. Its actions have helped to precipitate the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, including not only the strengthening of American military capabilities in the region but also the tightening of Washington’s security relations with a range of allies and security partners, some of which have strengthened their security links with each other.

Even ASEAN, for deep-seated reasons a perennially under-performing grouping, at its most recent ministerial meeting in August began to push back against China’s over-weaning behaviour in the SCS to a degree that may have begun to worry Beijing.

In attempting to defend the established regional order over the alternative of a regional disorder that would promise uncertainty, instability and possibly conflict, the US, its allies and partners will naturally need to avoid policies or operational responses that might justify Chinese fears about containment. But that does not mean that passivity should remain the order of the day.

The best approach would be a concerted and graduated response that would demonstrate to Beijing that continued maritime assertiveness to the detriment of other countries’ interests will be costly.

The US needs to maintain the momentum of its rebalance to the region, in terms of not only strengthening its regional military posture but also boosting Southeast Asian states’ maritime capabilities.

On their part, Southeast Asian governments – including Indonesia, whose interests have been directly challenged by Chinese incursions into its exclusive economic zone – need to signal their willingness to engage more closely with the US and its allies, and with each other.

Of course, risks are inherent in such policies. But there are limits to how strongly China can respond: it cannot afford an elevated risk of a conflict involving the US that it could only lose. And economic interdependence cuts both ways.

For example, Beijing’s attempt to punish Tokyo economically for its behaviour in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute backfired. Consumer boycotts of Japan and hints of export restrictions combined with physical attacks on Japanese factories contributed to a significant decline in Japanese Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in China during 2014. Many observers believe that this experience has contributed to Beijing’s softer approach towards Tokyo.

China needs to understand that the more that the states around its maritime littoral find its behaviour threatening, the more likely it is that the Chinese Communist Party’s worst nightmare of encirclement by the US and its allies could become a reality.

This is a message that ASEAN members, in particular, should convey more clearly to China. Joint FONOPS with the US in the SCS, including US allies and security partners, would be another important signal to China that it is not only Washington that views the current regional security order as worth preserving.

Tim Huxley is Executive Director of The International Institute for Strategic Studies – Asia, Singapore. Ben Schreer is Professor in Security Studies at Macquarie University.

Their paper on the South China Sea will be available in the January/February 2016 of ‘Survival‘, published by The International Institute for Strategic Studies.