UPDATED with Chinese Ambassador, Sen. Sullivan, & CSIS conference
WASHINGTON: “To a surrounded enemy, you must leave a way of escape,” Sun Tzu wrote 2,500 years ago. It’s a stratagem – often called the “golden bridge” – that the US and its allies would do well to remember tomorrow morning, when a UN tribunal will almost certainly deliver China a legal and political defeat. [UPDATE: The tribunal did indeed rule unanimously in favor of the Philippines on almost every point, even denying China’s Nine-Dash Line claim to historical rights over the entire South China Sea.] Chinese nationalists will stridently demand retaliation. We need to give Xi Jinping room to deescalate instead without losing face, analysts say.
“How China reacts in the near term is going to depend in part on what actions the US and the Philippines take,” said Bonnie Glaser, China scholar at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “The US should strike a balance between calling on China to comply with the ruling and putting pressure on it to do so, while at the same time leaving China diplomatic space…to wriggle out of the corner it has put itself in.”
The US should continue military patrols in the region, including Freedom Of Navigation Operations through disputed waters, “but they don’t have to be publicly announced,” Glaser said. That stands in stark contrast to several recent, high-profile FONOPs much discussed in the media and in Congress.
Timing matters too, said Jeffrey Hornung, a fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA. “Of course you’re going to want to enforce the claim at some point,” he said, “but if they ruling comes out 0500 Eastern time tomorrow and they leave port at 0600, then we’re jumping the gun a little bit.”
“The best the US can do is really not gloat (and) thump its chest,” said Hornung.
[UPDATE: The US should conduct a Freedom of Navigation Operation past Chinese-occupied Mischief Reef “in the coming weeks,” Senator Dan Sullivan recommended Tuesday morning. The tribunal ruled the reef a “low-tide elevation,” not an island, and therefore not entitled to any territorial waters, Sullivan noted, so — rather than limiting FONOPs to so-called “innocent passage” — the US legally can and strategically should conduct military operations nearby.
But we shouldn’t make a big deal of it, Sullivan said. The first few FONOPs got outsize attention because the Obama administration had stopped doing them in the disputed waters for three years. “Now what we need to do is make these regular… and don’t make them such a big deal that everybody’s watching them,” Sullivan said.
“I certainly hope China views this tribunal as an opportunity for compromise,” Sullivan told a conference at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “(So far) they’re very dismissive.” UPDATE ENDS]
No matter how nicely the US asks, no one expects Beijing to roll over and comply with the Hague tribunal’s ruling: The Chinese government has already promised not to. The crucial question is how it expresses its defiance: Will it limit its response to hostile rhetoric or violate the ruling with military action? In the worst case, China would build bases on the disputed Scarborough Shoal just off the Philippines, potentially leading to at-sea shoving matches between Chinese dredgers and Philippine vessels. In the best case, Beijing would realize it’s in a hole in Southeast Asia, having alienated much of the region with its aggressive actions, and it needs to stop digging.
So if the US and the Philippines speak softly to China – keeping the big stick of US seapower in the background – they might just give Xi the political wiggle room to choose the more peaceful path. Crow too loudly about the tribunal victory, this theory goes, and incensed Chinese nationalists might force the Beijing government to escalate.
Even the analysts who suggested the best-case scenario acknowledge that it’s unlikely. China has spent several years escalating its maritime claims against the Philippines, Japan, and other neighbors. Now arcana such as whether a given dot on the map is a “rock” or a mere “low tide elevation” have become entangled with Chinese national pride, still deeply wounded by a century of foreign domination and civil war that ended with the Communist takeover in 1949.
“Under Xi Jinping, much emphasis has been placed on righting the wrongs of the past, including the loss of Chinese territory in the South China Sea,” said Glaser. “Compromise will be very difficult since it has been portrayed as a signal of weakness.”
The ruling “essentially gives China an off-ramp from all the ratcheting up of tensions,” said Hornung. “The problem is no one thinks they’re really going to do that,” he sighed. “They’ve played it up so much (that) it’s very difficult to take the off-ramp without taking some domestic political flak…. They’ve backed themselves into a corner.”
“The South China Sea issue has become so wrapped up with Chinese identity and nationalism and the credibility of the regime (that) they can’t back down per se,” Hornung said. But on the bright side, “they’ve been masters of playing both sides” – of talking tough and letting Chinese nationalists let off steam, while actually pursuing more restrained policies.
One promising sign would be for China to open direct negotiations with the Philippines. Sometimes China has used such one-on-one talks to browbeat a smaller country, but in this case, “the US should give the new Philippine government an opportunity to engage with China bilaterally,” said Glaser. Newly elected president Rodrigo Duterte has distanced himself from the strongly anti-China, pro-US stance of his predecessor, discomfiting US observers but giving him some political maneuvering room to make a deal.
[UPDATE: It’s significant that the Philippines responded to its legal triumph with great restraint rather than chest-beating, not an easy temptation to avoid to do given its population’s fierce national pride. “Our experts are studying the award with the care and thoroughness that this significant arbitral outcome deserves,” said a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “In meantime, we call upon all concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety.”
China’s ambassador to the United States, for his part, emphasized China’s commitment to negotiation. Amb. Cui Tiankai went so far as to snarkily contrast Chinese-style diplomacy to what he considered the Philippines’ underhanded resort to arbitration — he dismissed the tribunal ruling as “a scrap of paper,” a term with a deeply unfortunate history — and America’s heavy-handed militarism.
“How should we deal with the disputes now?” Amb. Cui asked at CSIS. “I believe negotiations and consultations among the parties concerned still offer the most feasible and effective way. Diplomatic efforts should not be blocked and will not be blocked by a scrap of paper or by a fleet or aircraft carriers. China remains committed to negotiations and consultation with other parties. This position has never changed and will not change.” UPDATE ENDS]
“If the Chinese play this smartly, they will agree to open talks with the Philippines without preconditions and seek to discuss ways to defuse tensions on fishing,” Glaser said. “In the meantime, the Chinese should stop harassing Filipino fishermen who are fishing in international waters.”
Even in such a best-case scenario, don’t expect China to fundamentally reassess its hegemonic strategy. Beijing prides itself on its strategic patience, and what it doesn’t win today – or tomorrow, or next year – it expects to win eventually. In the meantime, China may refocus on its disputes with Japan, or on other objectives around the world.
The defeat before the tribunal is “on the order of a 10 or 15-yard penalty,” no more, said Peter Haynes of the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments. “In a more strategic sense, I think they’re just going to keep moving on the direction they’re moving (with) grey zone tactics, salami slicing….This is just one front of many.”
The official Washington consensus, understandably, is wait and see. “This ruling is China’s opportunity to show the world it sees itself as part of the post-World War II international order, and not as the principal opponent of that order,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, chairman of the House seapower subcommittee and a leading (if nuanced) China hawk.
“If Beijing refuses to accept the tribunal’s judgement, it will have profound consequences for the world’s ability to peacefully resolve territorial disputes and conduct ourselves beyond simply a ‘might-makes-right’ mentality,” Forbes said. “The United States has an obligation, as a matter of both interests and values, to place all appropriate pressure on Beijing to respect the tribunal’s decision and conduct itself as the ‘responsible stakeholder’ it claims to be.”