The standoff between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea is now a month old. The media coverage has dried up but out on the waves the collisions and water cannon barrages continue. Some analysts are convinced the crisis has been a victory for China and a setback for the United States’ position in Asia. I believe the opposite is more likely.
A few commentators have suggested the US should have given more muscular backing to Vietnam. That would have been a grave mistake. Ever since May 1943, when the State Department drafted document T-324 to guide its South China Sea policy-making, the official US attitude to the disputes has remained deliberately vague.
The authors of T-324 argued the islands were “of no vital interest to any single country or territory” including the United States, according to.Kimie Hara, Cold War Frontiers in the Asia Pacific: Divided Territories in the San Francisco System, published in 2006 p146. The Norwegian researcher Stein Tonnesson has unearthed documents showing that the UK came to the same conclusion in August 1950 (at a time when its colonial possessions included Singapore, Malaya, Borneo, Brunei and Hong Kong). It’s worth noting the British Chiefs-of-Staff’s conclusions:
(a) The Spratley (sic) Islands are of no appreciable strategic value to the Allies, whose only concern would be to deny these islands to a potential enemy.
(b) Occupation of the Spratley Islands by Communist China in peace might be considered a minor Cold War reverse for the Allies.
(c) Enemy occupation in war would not, so long as we retain control of the South China Sea, be a serious strategic threat.
As Lt. Gen. John Wissler, the commander of the United States' III Marine Expeditionary Force in Japan noted in connection with the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, it’s much harder to defend a small island than attack it. From the United States’ perspective, who controls which island (whether in the Spratlys and the Paracels) is irrelevant to its major strategic interest in the region: freedom of navigation. If it ever came to a shooting war, the US could eliminate all the military positions on all the islands in an afternoon.
The United States is better off staying clear of any involvement in the rights and wrongs of each country’s territorial claims. As recent events have demonstrated, it would be far too easy to become sucked into what are, in essence, trivial disputes that carry a considerable risk of escalation. It’s not Washington’s role to adjudicate fishing rights in the South China Sea.
Far more important, from Washington’s perspective, is to reassure its allies and partners. This does not necessarily have to involve large-scale military deployments or major new funding pledges. Burden-sharing is already a reality around the South China Sea. After years of relying on the United States and then more years of ignoring the situation, the Philippines has finally started to spend money on its maritime defense. Malaysia has been quietly building up its capabilities over the past decade and Indonesia might actually get around to doing the same soon. Singapore has a capable military and Vietnam has been acquiring its own “area denial” weaponry from Russia. Each one is small but the links between them are growing. US allies Japan, South Korea and Australia are increasingly providing equipment and training to countries in the neighbourhood.
The US commitment to the region is muscular and visible. Pacific Command makes an average of two port visits every day. Its Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises are now in their 20th year. Every Asean country (except Vietnam, landlocked Laos and once-sanctioned Myanmar) takes part. Pacific Partnership is in its ninth year and will include Indonesia, Vietnam, Timor Leste, Cambodia and the Philippines in 2014. Exercise Rim of the Pacific is the world's largest set of naval manoeuvres. Can China match any of this?
The wider security situation remains firmly weighted in Washington’s favor. Unlike the US, China’s coastline is hemmed in by chains of islands. From the Malacca Strait in the southwest to the La Pérouse Strait in the northeast, the forces of geophysics have created a series of choke-points for Chinese shipping and the forces of geopolitics have made them all easily controllable by its main potential adversary.
Is China marching to regional domination? In a word, no. By sending its oil rig into the waters around the Paracels on May 3, Beijing has discredited its supporters – notably in the upper ranks of the Communist Party of Vietnam – and provided new reasons for neighboring countries to invest in more military hardware to counter a new sense of threat.
There seem to be two groups of people talking down the US position in the South China Sea – Chinese hawks and their American counterparts. Both have a vested interest in talking up the “China threat.” But paradoxically, American hawks seem to be talking their country into defeat. The more they emphasise China’s growing capabilities the more they weaken American resolve to stay the course in Southeast Asia. A realistic assessment of the US position in the region would recognize that the US position is strong and that there’s no need for anyone to panic.
Bill Hayton is the author of 'The South China Sea and the struggle for power in Asia' to be published by Yale University Press in September. His book Vietnam: rising dragon was published by Yale University Press in 2010. He tweets @bill_hayton