(Published by The Straits Times of Singapore, August 29)

MARK J. VALENCIA WRITES – Relations between the United States and China – overall and in the South China Sea in particular – are rapidly deteriorating. The two countries are escalating the situation and a military clash is a distinct possibility.

Indeed, they seem locked in a duel driven by mutual distrust in which each claim to be responding to the other and neither wants to make the first move to de-escalate. The larger and broader dynamic seems unmanageable at the moment. However, in the short term, there are smaller steps that can be taken to avoid a clash.

The South China Sea is at the crux of their strategic contest for regional dominance.

The current US approach there seems to be to “meet China’s greater assertiveness with a more assertive use of force of its own”. According to US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, the US is aggressively building “the capabilities that we need to deter China from committing to a major confrontation”.

As US President Donald Trump’s re-election chances wane and he becomes desperate, an attempt to unite the country behind him by confronting China and even risking a “controlled clash” cannot be ruled out.

These are dangerous dynamics and there are several obvious “red lines” for both sides in the South China Sea.

For China, the South China Sea provides relative “sanctuary” for its retaliatory-strike nuclear submarines based in Yulin on Hainan.

These submarines are its insurance against a first strike – something the US – unlike China – has not disavowed. Thus, the possibility of a first strike is an existential threat to China and an advantage for the US in military strategy – and coercion.

The US uses intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes in the South China Sea to detect, track and, if necessary, target China’s nuclear submarines. China’s response has been to develop on some of the features it occupies the capability to neutralise the US’ ISR probes in a time of conflict.

For China, its installations are important to its continued existence and it is not about to unilaterally compromise this defence. But the US believes it needs to continue its intelligence probes because they give it an overall strategic nuclear advantage over China.

So, for China, any US move to significantly diminish these defence capabilities would likely be a “red line”.

For the US, a corresponding “red line” might well be any serious attempt to disrupt its ISR probes.

Neither wants war – especially a nuclear war – and that serves as a deterrent to crossing these “red lines”.

But there are other probable “red lines” that China should not cross. For the US, this would include blatant violations of commercial freedom of navigation or an attack on the forces or territory of its ally, the Philippines.

This is primarily because a non-response by the US would destroy its credibility as the “leader” and protector of the “international order” and the region.

Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell has declared any attempt by China to occupy and build on the Philippines-claimed Scarborough Shoal as a “red line”. China’s declaration of an air defence identification zone over a large swathe of disputed waters in the South China Sea might not in itself be crossing a “red line”, although an attempt to enforce it would likely be so.

For China, whose body politic has become increasingly nationalistic, any national loss of face and resultant loss of respect for leadership could trigger a crossed “red line” response. This might include a US military confrontation that forces a public climbdown by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy.

It would also include any of several belligerent actions that have been proposed, such as using military power to blockade China’s features or even forcing Chinese forces off them.

These are some of the more obvious “red lines” that both should avoid. There are presumably others known best to their military intelligence communities. The two should communicate their “red lines” and the reasons for them.

Asean countries could contribute to conflict avoidance by individually or preferably multilaterally expressing opposition to the US and Chinese military presence.

There has been some movement in this direction. Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have individually expressed their concerns. But so far, the voicing of these concerns has not had the desired effect. However, an escalating and strengthening chorus of concern could help reduce the potential for conflict and confrontation.

If the two protagonists begin to heed these pleas, another small step would be for China and the US to improve their military-to-military communication so that neither side is surprised or “threatened” to the point that an unintended clash occurs.

Several communication mechanisms already exist – at least on paper – and reinvigorating them would seem a logical step. Mr Esper wants to visit China soon to “establish the systems necessary for crisis communication”. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi agrees that a discussion is needed for a “list of issues that need proper management”.

If effective, these small steps could over time lead to a larger tactical bargain.

China might refrain from further occupation, construction and “militarisation” on its claimed features. It would also not undertake any provocative action like occupying and building on Scarborough Shoal, harassing other claimants in their claimed exclusive economic zones and declaring an air defence identification zone over disputed waters.

The US, in turn, would decrease or cease altogether its provocative freedom of navigation operations there and its “close-in” ISR probes.

In the end, for a stable peace, both will have to share. The US would have to share power with China in the region. And China would have to share the sea’s resources and their management with its rival claimants. But this is a long way off – if ever.

Since, in the short term, compromise appears to be out of reach, the two nations have a responsibility to their people, the region and the world to do what they can to avoid a clash – assuming that they want to do so.

Reaching a mutual understanding of each other’s “red lines” is the least they can do. By making clear their “red lines”, they will be giving conflict avoidance a chance.

Meanwhile, small steps such as a broader and more robust Asean voice of concern and revitalised US-China military-to military communication might help stabilise the situation.

Mark J. Valencia is adjunct senior scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

This is the third monthly article published under the Asian Peace Programme, an initiative to promote peace in Asia housed in the Asia Research Institute (ARI) in NUS. The essays can be found on the ARI website.

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