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Only the Chinese Give a Shit about the South China Sea

As I predicted a while back, the United States has quietly ditched its old, underperforming pretext for confrontation in the South China Sea and is sidestepping into a new justification. I do not care deeply about America’s stake in the South China Sea so I have little interest in slogging through recent American & Chinese contributions to the controversy du jour: the viability or lack thereof of the notorious nine-dash line or 9DL under international law. The only people who should give a sh*t about the South China Sea are the Chinese. Much of the PRC’s trade and Middle East energy pass through the SCS; and the determined US rapprochement with Myanmar (and anti-Chinese activism by the PRC’s domestic Myanmar opponents) has threatened one of the PRC’s important energy security countermoves: the Rakhine to Kunming oil and gas pipeline originating beyond the western end of the Malacca Straits.

But the PRC’s conflicts with its SCS neighbors—and the ridiculous burden of the nine-dash line—are China’s key areas of strategic & diplomatic vulnerability. The United States has been working assiduously to exploit the PRC’s difficulties and foreclose the logical trajectory for conflict resolution since 2010, when Hillary Clinton declared the United States had a strategic interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a sea I might point out, which is of overwhelming strategic importance to only one major power, the PRC. Instead of allowing the conflicts to resolve themselves through bilateral discussions, with the PRC basically sticking it to Vietnam and the Philippines and confirming its dominant strategic posture in the South China Sea, the United States worked overtly to internationalize them through ASEAN and has discretely encouraged the Philippines and Vietnam to defy the PRC and thereby keep the conflicts alive.

Case in point, the apparent sabotage of PRC-Philippine bilateral negotiations over the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 by Kurt Campbell and Alberto Del Rosario.

The commentariat apparently swallowed Kurt Campbell’s ridiculous line about the Scarborough Shoal encounter which, stripped of the persiflage, boils down to this: First, the PRC abandoned its desperately defended insistence on bilateral negotiations with the Philippines (and its other SCS interlocutors, for that matter), to settle the affair in a completely Filipino-free environment with one of its most detested adversaries, the Pappy of the Pivot, Kurt Campbell, in a Virginia motel room. Second, the PRC decided virtually instantaneously to renege on the revolutionary initiative they had just negotiated with Campbell.

As a couple carefree hours of Googling the English-language Philippine press reveals, this story is BS. President Aquino was deep in backchannel talks directly with Beijing. Del Rosario blew up the bilateral initiative and bewildered everybody with jibber jabber accusing the Chinese of reneging on a US-brokered deal that probably existed only in the fertile imagination of Kurt Campbell.

Perhaps it gives the commentariat brainhurt to consider the possibility that Kurt Campbell is yanking its chain and the US might conceivably be guilty of counterproductive and destabilizing behavior in Asia in order to create a strategic opportunity. I could understand that, I guess. Life and work are easier when you treat Kurt Campbell as a font of insider expertise, instead of calculating dispenser of dodgy and self-serving narratives. The path to fame and fortune in Asia pundit-land is not, I guess, paved with skepticism concerning Kurt Campbell and US talking points.

The SCS is now officially, a thing, something for the military-industrial-think tank complex to batten on. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has institutionalized its handwringing over the SCS in a new initiative, the “AsiaMaritime Transparency Initiative”:

Competing territorial claims, incidents between neighboring countries, and increasing militarization, however, raise the possibility that an isolated event at sea could become a geopolitical catastrophe. This is all occurring against a backdrop of relative opaqueness. Geography makes it difficult to monitor events as they occur, and there is no public, reliable authority for information on maritime developments.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative seeks to change this. AMTI was conceived of and designed by CSIS. It is an interactive, regularly updated source for information, analysis, and policy exchange on maritime security issues in Asia. AMTI aims to promote transparency in the Indo-Pacific to dissuade assertive behavior and conflict and generate opportunities for cooperation and confidence building.

There may be circumstances when AMTI cannot confidently de-conflict contradictory but credible accounts of the same event. In such cases, we will be guided by our advisory board as to whether to post the event showing multiple, plausible accounts, or await further information.

AMTI is made possible by Asia Program internal funding as well as a start-up grant from the Brzezinski Institute on Geostrategy. CSIS is in the process of soliciting funding for the initiative from governments in Asia, as well as corporate and foundation support.

I see a platform to document, broadcast and legitimize anti-PRC talking points in anticipation of SCS clashes in line with the close-surveillance “naming and shaming” tactics previously proposed to put a crimp in PRC’s seaborne mischief. Prove me wrong, I beg you.

In my piece from earlier this year, “Debunking America’s Scarborough Shoal Dolchstoss Meme,” I argue that Campbell’s motive in 2014 was to retroactively frame the PRC as the great betrayer of peace and security in the SCS, in order to deal with the fact that the PRC had neutralized the “threat to freedom of navigation” gambit—and in fact in mid 2014 turned it on its head and made an apparent spectacle of US doctrinal impotence by freely navigating the HYSY 981 oil rig through the South China Sea—and provide a narrative basis for justifying an overt US slide toward a new, hopefully more effective but also overtly anti-PRC position.

I think we’ve seen that with the release of the US paper. By declaring its opinion that the nine-dash line doesn’t conform to the international law of the sea (I will not excessively belabor the fact that the US itself has not ratified UNCLOS), the US government is not only “taking sides”; it is taking the position that the PRC is improperly denying US interests their fair access to the oily goodness of the South China Sea. Or as Jeffrey Bader put it, US interests include:

To ensure that all countries, including the U.S., have the right to exploit the mineral and fish resources outside of legitimate Exclusive Economic Zones.

This is a touch disingenuous, perhaps. Since Vietnam is not abandoning its claim to the PRC-occupied Spratlys—and claims a corresponding EEZ all the way up to the Philippine EEZ—there might not be any UNCLOS-certified mutually-agreed free-and-clear seabed for the US to sashay into. But by abandoning the non-flying “threat to freedom of navigation” canard in favor of the “Hey, we got a right to drill in the SCS, dammit!” repudiation of the 9DL, the United States can finally claim some real skin in the game, if not in international waters, then maybe in a consortium exploiting stuff within an EEZ.

Perhaps the next shoe to drop or splash (assuming the arbitral committee comes up with a suitable repudiation of the nine-dash line) might be for an international flotilla including US ships to shield an internationally-financed (with US investment, natch) Philippines-sanctioned survey ship or drilling rig off the Recto Bank from Chinese harassment in a mirror-image to the crowd of PRC ships that surrounded the HYSY 981 in its foray in contested waters off the Spratlys. If that works, maybe Vietnam might get into the energy incident act as well. Maybe India and Japan will be emboldened to make good on their promises and pitch in, too. Maybe.

If there’s a collision, I expect the AMTI website to get very busy, in this case replicating the parade of Japanese videos released on the occasion of PRC-Japan Senkaku encounters. Trouble is, I think the PRC is not going to back down. Its lengthy riposte to the Philippine arbitration case is an indicator that it has the determination to defy/ignore an unfavorable ruling. I think the PRC will act on the assumption its existential interest in the SCS will trump the US determination to embarrass and inconvenience the PRC in its own backyard. And we will get caught in an escalatory spiral, which, despite the financial and psychic benefits it dispenses to the armed services, defense contractors, and pundits, will be expensive, destabilizing, and ultimately counterproductive to US interests and prestige.

In other words, ten years from now we might not be celebrating the time we stopped Chinese aggression, ah, excuse me, assertiveness at Fiery Cross Reef and assured the security of our Philippine coconut milk supplies 4evah, and instead might ask ruefully, “Since when did we think it was a good idea to twist the PRC’s nuts repeatedly on the SCS?” We’ve made our watery geostrategic bed in the South China Sea. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out to be our grave.