(Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter; AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Over the weekend, the annual Shangri-La defense dialogue took place, as usual, in Singapore. As you might expect, the latest events in the South China Sea (SCS) dominated the agenda and conversations there.
Keep in mind, there was concern, especially from the Chinese side, that US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter would take a hard stance against China at the summit. After all, in recent weeks, there have been rumblings that the US was prepared to more strongly counter China's moves in the SCS, as momentum has been reportedly growing in the White House and the Pentagon for new and better responses. Carter himself said that the US might send planes and ships in and around Chinese-created installations in the SCS to signal America's view that China's construction has gone way too far and too fast.
At Shangri-La, Carter put forward a firm defense of America's commitment to the rule of law internationally and freedom of navigation in the SCS. Carter declared that China's reclamation projects do not amount to state sovereignty. He called for all reclamation activities, not just those undertaken by China, to stop--which pleased the Chinese attendees, who have been calling attention to countries like the Philippines that have also been building outposts in the SCS. Carter also made sure to emphasize his desire for peaceful, non-militarized outcomes in the SCS, good military-to-military relations with China, and the continuation of cooperation between both sides. On balance, Carter put forward a good recitation of US national interests in the SCS, but in way that didn't really didn't offend China, at least according to Chinese attendees.
Meantime, Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff Sun Jianguo, who led China's delegation at the summit, defended the typical spin we hear from Beijing. In particular, he said China's reclamation projects in the SCS were legitimate and justified, argued that China's efforts are part of an effort to provide regional public goods, denied that the country is destabilizing Southeast Asia, and recognized that setting up an ADIZ over the SCS is possible. He also ignored many of the questions posed to him during a Q&A session, including a pointed question from Bloomberg's Josh Rogin, who asked "with whom China is cooperating and who other than China is winning in the South China Sea?" in her write-up of Shangri-La, Bonnie Glaser calls China's performance at the summit "a missed opportunity for China to address the concerns about Chinese intentions and behavior that were raised throughout the two-day meeting by defense representatives and scholars from around the world, but most importantly from China’s neighboring countries."
With all this in mind, here are some brief thoughts about the Shangri-La Dialogue and the US-China clash in the SCS more generally:
(1) It should be very apparent that China isn't backing down in the SCS, which should be troubling to all parties with a vested interest in what happens there. It considers the SCS its turf and, as a result, a core national interest on which compromise is unlikely.
(2) There is a growing disjuncture between words and deeds from Team Obama. Reports of occasional tough talk from Secretary of State John Kerry and defense chief Ashton Carter haven't been matched by actions on the ground from the US. And at least on the surface, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of thought within US circles given to pushing back against China, to ramping up and sharpening its deterrent strategies and mechanisms. Interestingly, as Rogin points out:
Following Carter’s remarks, Asahi Shimbun journalist Yoichi Kato pointed out that Carter’s rhetoric is not really new and has not thus far resulted in any halt in Chinese expansion of its military presence in disputed territories – in fact China has only escalated its aggression. He asked Carter what the U.S. is actually prepared to do to back up its rhetoric with concrete action.
Carter had no real answer, pointing back to his contention that Chinese actions are not just something for Washington to deal with. He predicted that eventually China will pay a price for alienating its neighbors, but didn’t indicate that the U.S. has any real plan to ramp up the pressure.
(3) The above point, not surprisingly, has fed the perception within China that Team Obama is not just tied down and distracted, but weak and unwilling to respond meaningfully to its moves throughout Asia. That, in turn, has led China to believe that it has a free hand in the SCS.
(4) The US urgently needs to put together a comprehensive plan for the SCS. At Shangri-La, Carter did reveal a $425 million maritime initiative to assist in building up the capabilities of Southeast Asian nations. Carter didn't reveal many specifics about this initiative, but it won't be enough to stabilize the region. More needs to be done. For starters, I recommend the suggestions I sketched out in my last blog post.
(5) If push comes to shove with China, the US will find trouble formulating an adequate response for reasons beyond simply foreign policy distraction and lack of leadership resolve. Those things matter, but arguably even more so does the policy preferences of Americans. So for instance, are American citizens willing to devote treasure, and perhaps blood, in defense of rocks and reefs in the SCS? Are they willing to defend a country, Vietnam, that their home nation fought a protracted war against not so long ago? Do they understand the importance of the SCS to international trade and shipping? Do they care if the current steps that China is taking is paving the way for Chinese hegemony in Asia?My guess is an unequivocal no on all four counts, which means it's going to be terribly difficult for Team Obama to mobilize domestic support for significantly more pressure on China. This just isn't a fight Americans want to have right now, especially with so many other threats, such as ISIS and Russia, that have been pushed forward, if not outright trumped up, by Washington and the American media.