Soft Bal­anc­ing vs. Hard Clashes: The Risks of War Over the South China Sea

The Risks of War over the South China Sea

Global Asia - - CONTENTS - By T. V. Paul

as China rises, how likely is it that dis­putes over this key body of wa­ter could lead to con­flict with the Us?

In the midst of China’s decades­long eco­nomic growth, lead­ers in Bei­jing have been keen to em­pha­size the coun­try’s ‘peace­ful rise.’ But it’s im­pos­si­ble to es­cape the fact that China’s rise is in­creas­ingly chal­leng­ing the role of the United States in the re­gion. With Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s more as­sertive ap­proach to for­eign relations, par­tic­u­larly in­volv­ing Bei­jing’s claims in the South

China Sea, T.V. Paul looks at the pos­si­bil­ity that dis­putes over this key body of wa­ter could lead to con­flict be­tween China and the US.

as China’s BUILDUP and mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the south China sea con­tin­ues un­abated, the ques­tion arises, is this the calm be­fore the storm? In other words, will the United states re­spond mil­i­tar­ily be­fore China be­comes too strong in the re­gion? Or will China en­gage in vi­o­lence to stop in­creas­ing Us naval in­tru­sions in the area, chris­tened free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tions un­der the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Us Pres­i­dent Don­ald trump?

many pre­vi­ous his­tor­i­cal ex­am­ples of naval buildups by ris­ing pow­ers in the core re­gions of pre­pon­der­ant pow­ers did not pro­duce be­nign out­comes. It was Ger­many that ini­ti­ated a naval arms buildup in the prin­ci­pal wa­ters of Bri­tish hege­mony — the north sea and the at­lantic — be­gin­ning in 1898 and last­ing un­til 1912. sim­i­larly, it was a naval arms buildup in the 1920s and 1930s, first launched by the Us and matched by Ja­pan and the UK that helped lead to full­blown war in the Pa­cific. It took nearly two decades of arms buildup by the chal­lenger for the hege­monic pow­ers to feel the pres­sure. In the first in­stance, all it took was the cri­sis of July 1914 in sara­jevo for war to break out. In the Us­japan case, it took an­other decade, with the Ja­panese at­tack on Pearl Har­bor in 1941, al­though the pos­si­bil­ity of war ex­isted dur­ing the 1930s when the Us en­gaged in in­tense eco­nomic sanc­tions on Ja­pan. In my new book, Re­strain­ing Great Pow­ers: Soft Bal­anc­ing from Em­pires to the Global Era, I ex­am­ine the var­i­ous in­sti­tu­tional and eco­nomic ef­forts by states since the napoleonic era to re­strain chal­lengers and the con­di­tions un­der which these ef­forts led to suc­cess or fail­ure. the cur­rent era of deep glob­al­iza­tion and re­sul­tant

in­ter­de­pen­dence al­lows for the lim­ited suc­cess of soft bal­anc­ing ef­forts, while ac­tive hard bal­anc­ing, re­ly­ing on in­tense arms buildups and the for­ma­tion of military al­liances, could ac­cel­er­ate time pres­sures among con­tend­ing states to act mil­i­tar­ily, height­en­ing the risk of war.

to­day’s great-power relations dif­fer from those of the past partly be­cause nu­clear de­ter­rence is lurk­ing in the back­ground, pre­vent­ing es­ca­la­tion to full-fledged war. ex­ten­sive and deep eco­nomic glob­al­iza­tion is also help­ing to re­duce the in­ten­sity of con­flicts, but if it cre­ates per­cep­tions of win­ners and losers, it will be­come less of a guar­an­tor for long-term peace. there is noth­ing that could com­pletely pre­vent lim­ited wars or in­tense crises oc­cur­ring among nu­clear pow­ers as hap­pened be­tween rus­sia and China in 1969 in the Us­suri river cri­sis and be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan in 1999 over con­trol of the Kargil Hills.

to­day, China may be un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the amer­i­can po­ten­tial and re­solve to chal­lenge its military ex­pan­sion in the south China sea. Bei­jing may, out of over­con­fi­dence, start pre­vent­ing nor­mal ship­ping or dis­rupt­ing military tran­sit for Us and al­lied navies, which in turn could spark a desta­bi­liz­ing cri­sis. Wash­ing­ton may also pur­sue ag­gres­sive pa­trolling near China’s self claimed islets, thus gen­er­at­ing tense stand­offs un­der free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tions. Other fu­ture sce­nar­ios in­clude coun­tries in the as­so­ci­a­tion of south­east asian na­tions (asean) such as the Philip­pines and Viet­nam get­ting in­volved in a cri­sis with China by their own ac­tive mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the dis­puted is­lands. the Us could come to the res­cue of these states if they are at­tacked by China, be­cause the Philip­pines is a for­mal ally and is in­creas­ingly viewed in Wash­ing­ton as an in­for­mal strate­gic part­ner. the pos­si­bil­ity of con­flict has gen­er­ated de­bate be­tween op­ti­mists and pes­simists on China’s rise. re­cently, Gra­ham al­li­son’s claims re­gard­ing the “thucy­dides trap” at­tracted much at­ten­tion, both in fa­vor and in op­po­si­tion, on the fu­ture prospects of war. How­ever, none of these ac­counts dis­cusses the most crit­i­cal mech­a­nisms that could gen­er­ate war. One is the time pres­sure that lead­ers may ex­pe­ri­ence at var­i­ous pe­ri­ods that can im­pact the choice for war be­tween a ris­ing and an es­tab­lished power.

Now or NEVER?

Wars do not hap­pen just ran­domly or purely be­cause of con­tend­ing ter­ri­to­rial or strate­gic claims. an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion is that time pres­sures build up grad­u­ally among ri­vals and pro­duce un­in­tended out­comes. time pres­sures have mul­ti­ply­ing ef­fects on states who see fu­ture con­di­tions turn­ing against them dras­ti­cally. this type of time pres­sure is dif­fer­ent from what lead­ers ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing the peak or es­ca­la­tion phase of a cri­sis. a pre­ven­tive dilemma can oc­cur to a state ex­pe­ri­enc­ing time pres­sures, as de­ci­sion makers feel they need to weigh whether or not they should strike be­fore the other side be­comes pre­pon­der­ant. at­tack­ing may have costs, but lead­ers may be­lieve that the cur­rent costs are bear­able, and that in the fu­ture, these costs are likely to mul­ti­ply. Un­der such con­di­tions, lead­ers could per­ceive the need to “at­tack now or never.”

most wars are wars of choice, and they hap­pen when lead­ers feel the need to act be­cause of im­pend­ing changes that they con­sider to be highly un­fa­vor­able. lead­ers fac­ing an im­mi­nent loss of ter­ri­tory or power are un­der pres­sure to act be­fore the ad­ver­sary be­comes too strong and changes the sta­tus quo per­ma­nently. this type of pre­ven­tive war has oc­curred in his­tory, al­though the re­la­tion­ship be­tween chang­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties and war need not be lin­ear. When lead­ers of a stronger power feel that they are bound to lose a fu­ture con­flict, they may have an in­cen­tive to chal­lenge that out­come through military

ac­tion or other co­er­cive means. sim­i­larly, a rapidly strength­en­ing state can ex­pe­ri­ence the pres­sure to act be­cause a short-term ad­van­tage may not last. Usu­ally, hos­til­i­ties are trig­gered be­cause crises are ini­ti­ated by any one of the par­ties or a third party aligned with the states. His­tor­i­cal ex­am­ples in­clude the much-dis­cussed athens-sparta ri­valry and Ja­pan’s ini­ti­a­tion of war against rus­sia in 1904. Prior to the First World War, Ger­many’s lead­ers per­ceived them­selves to be fac­ing in­creas­ing rus­sian ca­pa­bil­i­ties; the same was true for Ja­pan prior to the at­tack on Pearl Har­bor. In re­gional con­texts, such wars have also oc­curred. Pak­istan’s Kash­mir of­fen­sive in 1965 is a good ex­am­ple. Its lead­er­ship sought to pre­vent In­dia from build­ing up its military strength fol­low­ing the 1962 military de­ba­cle with China. egyp­tian Pres­i­dent an­war sa­dat also ex­pe­ri­enced time pres­sures in 1973 due to chang­ing ca­pa­bil­ity con­fig­u­ra­tions with Is­rael and his fear that the sinai would never be re­cov­ered once the bal­ance of forces made Is­rael pre­pon­der­ant.

these time pres­sures could be gen­er­ated by changes to three crit­i­cal fac­tors af­fect­ing strate­gic sta­bil­ity in an ad­ver­sar­ial re­la­tion­ship: ca­pa­bil­ity con­fig­u­ra­tions in the the­ater of con­test, al­liance re­la­tion­ships, and do­mes­tic or­der in which in­di­vid­u­als and groups in fa­vor of more ag­gres­sive military strat­egy and doc­trines emerge as cen­tral de­ci­sion makers. mu­tual nu­clear de­ter­rence could re­duce time pres­sures, but it need not re­move this con­di­tion in lim­ited con­flicts. nu­clear-armed ris­ing and es­tab­lished pow­ers can en­gage in lim­ited con­flicts as well as in­tense cri­sis be­hav­ior if they ex­pe­ri­ence time pres­sures of this na­ture. nu­clear de­ter­rence could pre­vent es­ca­la­tion to all-out war and en­cour­age ri­vals to seek cri­sis man­age­ment, if such mech­a­nisms are in place. Un­for­tu­nately, the south China sea to­day is lack­ing such cri­sis pre­ven­tion or man­age­ment mech­a­nisms.

Chang­ing Ca­pa­bil­i­ties

the first el­e­ment of time pres­sure that could cause se­ri­ous armed clashes be­tween the Us and China is a sub­stan­tial in­crease in China’s military and eco­nomic ca­pa­bil­i­ties, in par­tic­u­lar in the south China sea. Its ca­pa­bil­i­ties in the re­gion are in­creas­ing but are not yet on a par with the Us. In­creas­ingly, China is en­gag­ing in live drills in­volv­ing its strike group led by the air­craft car­rier Liaon­ing, and its as­so­ci­ated battleships, frigates, de­stroy­ers and sub­marines, H-6K bombers and su-35 fighter jets. In april 2018, the Pla navy en­gaged in an ac­tive live-fire drill as three air­craft car­ri­ers of the Us navy passed by the area. an­other in the tai­wan strait was also con­ducted, and the type and strength of these ac­tiv­i­ties could in­crease as China’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties and am­bi­tions ad­vance. armed clashes could oc­cur as a re­sult of cal­cu­la­tions of rapidly chang­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties on both sides. a ma­jor short-term im­prove­ment in Bei­jing’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties could en­cour­age it to ac­cel­er­ate ter­ri­to­rial ad­vance­ments and un­der­take pre-emp­tive ac­tions if it per­ceives that the Us is plan­ning an at­tack in the near fu­ture. China could at­tempt to block Us free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tion pa­trols in the south China sea, prompt­ing a military re­sponse. Us lead­ers could feel the pres­sure to act be­fore the win­dow of vul­ner­a­bil­ity closes for China. eco­nomic cal­cu­la­tions could also play a role in such as­sess­ments. His­tor­i­cally, a state that has ac­quired both su­pe­rior eco­nomic and military power is the most formidable chal­lenger to an es­tab­lished or­der. Us lead­ers feel­ing both rel­a­tive eco­nomic and military de­cline could con­sider pre­ven­tive ac­tion that might in­clude both military and eco­nomic co­er­cion.

Chang­ing al­liances

the sec­ond fac­tor that can gen­er­ate war among ri­vals is a ma­jor change in the con­fig­u­ra­tion of al­liances. states ex­pe­ri­enc­ing al­liance losses or

are likely can­di­dates to ini­ti­ate wars. lead­ers ex­pe­ri­enc­ing changes in their al­liance re­la­tion­ships could en­gage in con­flict with other states if the al­liances of the op­po­nents are weak or non-ex­is­tent, and the ad­ver­sary is likely to gain cru­cial al­lies in the fu­ture. the spar­tans ex­pe­ri­enced this kind of al­liance pres­sure as smaller states were join­ing the Delian league led by athens. Corinth’s join­ing athens was a ma­jor fac­tor putting time pres­sure on sparta to act against athens. For many wars in the mod­ern era, al­liance cal­cu­la­tions have acted as a cru­cial fac­tor. Ja­pan in 1904 was con­fi­dent of Bri­tish sup­port in the short run, while an­glo-rus­sian talks in 1912

Gra­ham Al­li­son’s claims re­gard­ing the ‘Thucy­dides Trap’ at­tracted much at­ten­tion, both in fa­vor and in op­po­si­tion, on the fu­ture prospects of war. How­ever, none of these ac­counts dis­cusses the most crit­i­cal mech­a­nisms that could gen­er­ate war. One is the time pres­sure that lead­ers may ex­pe­ri­ence at var­i­ous pe­ri­ods that can im­pact the choice for war be­tween a ris­ing and an es­tab­lished power.

put pres­sure on Ger­many to act be­fore the al­liance be­came a pos­si­ble hin­drance to its am­bi­tions.

the al­liance fac­tor has yet to be­come cru­cial in the China-us con­text in the Indo-pa­cific, but this could change in the com­ing years. Be­cause China is not gain­ing military al­lies and the Us is not ac­quir­ing new ones, so far so good for the sta­tus quo. Chi­nese poli­cies have alien­ated a num­ber of key states in the re­gion and they are un­likely to lend sup­port to Bei­jing in the event of a military con­flict. But the re­gional states are also heav­ily linked eco­nom­i­cally with China, mak­ing them cau­tious about un­der­tak­ing any joint military ven­tures with the Us. their de­pen­dence is likely to grow mas­sively if the Belt and road Ini­tia­tive (BRI) suc­ceeds in mak­ing China the most im­por­tant eco­nomic player of the re­gion.

the only crit­i­cal ally to­day that could sup­port China in a con­flict with the Us is rus­sia. In a prob­a­ble sce­nario, rus­sia could sup­port China if it faces war in the euro­pean the­ater and China faces war in the Pa­cific, a sit­u­a­tion some­what akin to the con­di­tions Ger­many and Ja­pan faced prior to the sec­ond World War. yet an­other pos­si­bil­ity is that the Us could lose its al­liance sup­port from Ja­pan and south Korea. How­ever, this is un­likely in the near term, be­cause as long as the Chi­nese threat to these states is pal­pa­ble in any fu­ture con­flict, they are likely to re­main as Us al­lies. China has not yet been suc­cess­ful in cre­at­ing a pow­er­ful wedge be­tween them and the Us. a se­ri­ous ef­fort by China to take tai­wan could also be a cru­cial mo­ment, be­cause the Us would face in­tense pres­sure to help taipei or risk hav­ing its cred­i­bil­ity suf­fer in­cal­cu­la­ble dam­age. One key pos­si­ble change is the po­si­tion of non-sup­port or neu­tral­ity in a China-us military clash among south­east asian states, al­most all of whom now have Bei­jing as their lead­ing trade and in­vest­ment part­ner. the trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s with­drawal from the trans-pa­cific Part­gains

ner­ship (TPP) trade agree­ment and its “amer­ica First” poli­cies have alien­ated many states in the re­gion. Un­der the de­clin­ing cred­i­bil­ity of amer­i­can pres­ence and sup­port, south­east asian states may be­come re­luc­tant to sup­port the Us in a military con­flict with China. they could also opt for strate­gies of neu­tral­ity or non-align­ment.

Chang­ing Neigh­bors

a third war-gen­er­at­ing fac­tor linked to time pres­sure is do­mes­tic change in ri­val coun­tries that fa­vor the rise of hawk­ish lead­ers. In­se­cure or am­bi­tious lead­ers could ex­pe­ri­ence time pres­sure as they need to use win­dows of op­por­tu­nity to sur­vive un­der un­fa­vor­able cir­cum­stances. Highly am­bi­tious lead­ers with mes­sianic vi­sions would want to act be­fore their per­ceived fa­vor­able time passes and to ob­tain the grand strate­gic goals they have set in mo­tion. as their am­bi­tions and ca­pa­bil­i­ties in­crease, these goals will in­evitably clash with those of oth­ers in the neigh­bor­hood as well as at the global level. Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s as­sump­tion of power in 2012 has re­sulted in a more ex­pan­sion­ist pol­icy sup­plant­ing China’s peace­ful rise strat­egy, which was fol­lowed by Xi’s pre­de­ces­sors. China to­day is ag­gres­sively de­vel­op­ing its ca­pa­bil­i­ties in islets across the south China sea that it built dur­ing the past decade and ac­quir­ing ports in the In­dian Ocean. China opened its first over­seas military base in Dji­bouti in July 2017, and is re­port­edly build­ing an­other one in Gwadar in Pak­istan’s Baluchis­tan prov­ince. China is also build­ing com­mer­cial ports in Ham­ban­tota, sri lanka, maro atoll, mal­dives, Chit­tagong, Bangladesh, Port su­dan, and Bag­amoyo, tan­za­nia. the BRI will re­quire ad­di­tional ports in the years to come and the pro­tec­tion of these ma­jor eco­nomic as­sets would in­volve some form of Chi­nese se­cu­rity pres­ence. these ports could be­come po­ten­tial military bases, al­though strong op­po­si­tion ex­ists in lo­cal states for turn­ing them over to China for military use. How­ever, the civil­ian port build­ing ac­tiv­ity cou­pled with the BRI has given China a key rea­son not to up­set the re­gional or­der too strongly un­til the projects take firm root. the BRI is thus play­ing a dual role, one that pre­vents military con­flict in the short run, but may en­gen­der great power ri­valry in the long run.

the pace of Chi­nese mil­i­ta­riza­tion is hap­pen­ing in­cre­men­tally, but it could gain strength as and when China ac­quires full eco­nomic dom­i­nance and per­ceives a need to pro­tect its as­sets with military might. the BRI has some el­e­ments of the ini­tial stages of the Dutch and Bri­tish east In­dia com­pa­nies. When they first ar­rived in asia, they traded peace­fully, but as their in­ter­ests grew, they be­gan to ac­quire military power and in­ter­vened in do­mes­tic pol­i­tics through di­vide-an­drule strate­gies. the speed with which China has ac­quired eco­nomic as­sets in the BRI re­gions is as­ton­ish­ing, be­cause coun­tries are keen to at­tract Chi­nese in­vest­ment in their in­fra­struc­ture projects. But many of the loans for these projects carry high in­ter­est rates, and as a re­sult the debt trap is fast emerg­ing as a chal­lenge to smaller states. Heav­ily in­debted states could be forced to of­fer con­ces­sions sim­i­lar to the 99-year lease sri lanka gave to China for the Ham­ban­tota port in De­cem­ber 2017. the BRI has en­cour­aged other ris­ing pow­ers such as In­dia and Ja­pan to ini­ti­ate ri­val pro­grams, al­though so far, the pace of their re­sponses has been slow. the Us has also taken a turn to­ward right-wing pol­i­tics un­der Don­ald trump, who in 2017 be­gan a ma­jor in­crease in de­fense spend­ing and pa­trols of the south China sea. But de­spite its ag­gres­sive tone, es­pe­cially in the eco­nomic arena, the Us has yet to change its military doc­trine to an of­fen­sive mode. If that hap­pens, pre-emp­tion and pre­ven­tion could be­come an op­tion for China to con­sider, fear­ing amer­ica would do the same if it waited too long.

whose side is time on?

the south China sea the­ater is not yet ready for war. But war clouds could gather mo­men­tum in a few years, if lead­ers on ei­ther side be­lieve that time is not on their side. While the prob­a­bil­ity of a ma­jor war oc­cur­ring is low due to the work­ings of nu­clear de­ter­rence, crises, military stand­offs and pro­longed pe­ri­ods of ten­sion re­main in the realm of pos­si­bil­ity. even lim­ited military con­flicts in the the­ater could oc­cur, sim­i­lar to the rus­sia-china bor­der con­flict in 1969 and the In­dia-pak­istan Kargil war in 1999. these lim­ited skir­mishes can have far reach­ing con­se­quences by mak­ing the ri­vals more stri­dent and deep­en­ing their con­flict. a new Cold War could emerge be­tween China and the Us.

Be­fore such lim­ited wars hap­pen, pro­tracted crises and high ten­sions oc­cur. Can China, the Us, and asean coun­tries give diplo­macy and soft bal­anc­ing through in­sti­tu­tional mech­a­nisms a se­ri­ous chance? they have mul­ti­ple strate­gic op­tions to pur­sue here. One is to vig­or­ously en­gage diplo­mat­i­cally in or­der for all par­ties, es­pe­cially China, to sign the asean-pro­posed Code of Con­duct (COC) and ad­here to its core prin­ci­ples through a ver­i­fi­ca­tion mech­a­nism. a more am­bi­tious route would be declar­ing the south China sea and the In­dian Oceans as zones of peace un­der Un aus­pices and en­cour­ag­ing all in­volved states to sign a mu­tu­ally bind­ing treaty. an in­sti­tu­tional struc­ture could be cre­ated to mon­i­tor the ac­tiv­i­ties of states, es­pe­cially China and the Us, thereby mak­ing the zone an ef­fec­tive ap­proach. this could in­clude the Code of Con­duct that asean has been ne­go­ti­at­ing with China, but it would go be­yond that. It would in­clude a freeze on naval build ups in com­mon ter­ri­to­ries, a mul­ti­lat­eral treaty declar­ing free nav­i­ga­tion through­out the zone, pre­vent­ing heavy weaponry from be­ing brought to the re­gion, and de­velop con­fi­dence-build­ing mea­sures for the smooth pas- sage of com­mer­cial and military ves­sels. It would stop ac­tive military ex­er­cises and ma­neu­vers and give ad­e­quate warn­ing to all in­volved par­ties on small-scale military ex­er­cises for pur­poses such as anti-piracy and crime pre­ven­tion. Joint ex­plo­ration of re­sources could be de­vel­oped un­der in­ter­na­tional and bi­lat­eral mech­a­nisms.

For any of these to suc­ceed, China will have to scale down its am­bi­tious ex­pan­sion in the re­gion and the il­le­gal claims in the south China sea con­tained in its so-called nine-dash line. mul­ti­lat­eral mech­a­nisms could be de­vel­oped for con­tin­u­ous diplo­matic en­gage­ment among ma­jor pow­ers and re­gional states and free ac­cess to the sea lanes for all con­cerned coun­tries. a peace­ful rise sce­nario where no war oc­curs be­tween China and the Us, and the Us ac­com­mo­dates a risen China with­out vi­o­lence, is in the in­ter­ests of both na­tions. De­spite mit­i­gat­ing fac­tors, if in the com­ing years both the Us and China ratchet up their military ac­tiv­i­ties in the Indo-pa­cific, es­pe­cially in the south China sea, lim­ited skir­mishes and in­tense crises will re­main a risk. Con­fi­dence build­ing through a zone of peace could help re­duce the pos­si­bil­ity of such an out­come. soft bal­anc­ing us­ing in­sti­tu­tions could ease bel­liger­ence on both sides.

T.v. paul is james Mcgill pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional relations at Mcgill uni­ver­sity, Canada. he is the au­thor or edi­tor of 18 books on in­ter­na­tional relations. a former pres­i­dent of the in­ter­na­tional stud­ies as­so­ci­a­tion (isa), his new book is Re­strain­ing Great Pow­ers: Soft Bal­anc­ing from Em­pires to the Global Era (yale uni­ver­sity press, 2018).

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