Why China and the US won’t go to war over the South China Sea

Author: Carlyle A. Thayer, UNSW Canberra

China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea is challenging US primacy in the Asia Pacific.

Chinese sailors stand on a fishing vessel setting sail for the Spratly Islands, an archipelago disputed between China and other countries including Vietnam and the Philippines (Photo: AAP)

Even before Washington announced its official policy of rebalancing its force posture to the Asia Pacific, the United States had undertaken steps to strengthen its military posture by deploying more nuclear attack submarines to the region and negotiating arrangements with Australia to rotate Marines through Darwin.Since then, the United States has deployed Combat Littoral Ships to Singapore and is negotiating new arrangements for greater military access to the Philippines.

But these developments do not presage armed conflict between China and the United States. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has been circumspect in its involvement in South China Sea territorial disputes, and the United States has been careful to avoid being entrapped by regional allies in their territorial disputes with China. Armed conflict between China and the United States in the South China Sea appears unlikely.

Another, more probable, scenario is that both countries will find a modus vivendi enabling them to collaborate to maintain security in the South China Sea. The Obama administration has repeatedly emphasised that its policy of rebalancing to Asia is not directed at containing China. For example, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, Commander of the US Pacific Command, recently stated, ‘there has also been criticism that the Rebalance is a strategy of containment. This is not the case … it is a strategy of collaboration and cooperation’.

However, a review of past US–China military-to-military interaction indicates that an agreement to jointly manage security in the South China Sea is unlikely because of continuing strategic mistrust between the two countries. This is also because the currents of regionalism are growing stronger.

As such, a third scenario is more likely than the previous two: that China and the United States will maintain a relationship of cooperation and friction. In this scenario, both countries work separately to secure their interests through multilateral institutions such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus and the Enlarged ASEAN Maritime Forum. But they also continue to engage each other on points of mutual interest. The Pentagon has consistently sought to keep channels of communication open with China through three established bilateral mechanisms: Defense Consultative Talks, the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA), and the Defense Policy Coordination Talks.

On the one hand, these multilateral mechanisms reveal very little about US–China military relations. Military-to-military contacts between the two countries have gone through repeated cycles of cooperation and suspension, meaning that it has not been possible to isolate purely military-to-military contacts from their political and strategic settings.

On the other hand, the channels have accomplished the following: continuing exchange visits by high-level defence officials; regular Defense Consultation Talks; continuing working-level discussions under the MMCA; agreement on the ‘7-point consensus’; and no serious naval incidents since the 2009 USNS Impeccable affair. They have also helped to ensure continuing exchange visits by senior military officers; the initiation of a Strategic Security Dialogue as part of the ministerial-level Strategic & Economic Dialogue process; agreement to hold meetings between coast guards; and agreement on a new working group to draft principles to establish a framework for military-to-military cooperation.

So the bottom line is that, despite ongoing frictions in their relationship, the United States and China will continue engaging with each other. Both sides understand that military-to-military contacts are a critical component of bilateral engagement. Without such interaction there is a risk that mistrust between the two militaries could spill over and have a major negative impact on bilateral relations in general. But strategic mistrust will probably persist in the absence of greater transparency in military-to-military relations. In sum, Sino-American relations in the South China Sea are more likely to be characterised by cooperation and friction than a modus vivendi of collaboration or, a worst-case scenario, armed conflict.

Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. The ideas in this paper were first presented at the Annual Conference of the Association for Asian Studies held at San Diego, 22 March 2013.

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  • david teng

    In 1974, China defeated South Vietnamese navy to gain total control of Paracel island. In 1988, they displaced the newly united Vietnam and controlled 8 rocks in the Spratly islands chain. In 1998, they took Mischief shoal from the Philippines and in 2012, they never left the Scarborough shoal while the Philippines did. Today, with their navy and oceanic patrol units everywhere, China has a de facto occupation of all South China Sea. Given that background of Chinese accelerated schedule, China will impose it restriction on freedom of navigation throughout this waterway by 2015, having evicted by forces all other claimants. What political rationale does the US use to explain its stay on the sideline? Where’s the credibility of “Pivot to Asia” with 2 million square miles of free ocean, taken over privately by Chinese navy?

    • The U.S. is too polite to say what it is actually trying to do in its Rebalancing to Asia-Pacific. But all the military strategists in Beijing know and they are preparing to counter accordingly. It is a little bit too difficult to believe that deploying more attack nuclear submarines is intended to promote cooperation with anyone around here. This is one more reason for China to secure its control of the South China Sea for the safe deployment of its own submarines. By the way, the USS Freedom was part of the open house of the Singapore Navy last weekend. Nothing mysterious about it. The supposedly super-modern super-secret looks quite ordinary; not much different from the other frigates of the Singapore Navy.

      • Jack

        Obviously you were not privy to an onboard view of the USS Freedom. It is higher tech than most if not all other countries comparable assets. There is no other country that comes close to retaining the power of the US military. Russia has some very good submarines and winged assets, but that is about it.

  • venze

    Why would China and the US want to go to war? Are there not enough massacres and bombings in the world already?
    China aims for a stronger economic footing and wishes to consolidate its international trade further. Moreover, urgent domestic issues need to be tackled, no time for war. (vzc1943)

  • Oh, really? The only reason why the Philippines has not lost lives to the Chinese yet is they KEPT BACKING OFF to the Chinese challenges. That means China will then just keep challenging the Philippines