This week, the USS McCampbell sailed within 12 nautical miles of China’s Xisha Islands in the South China Sea. As is customary during the course of such provocations, China sent a warning to the ship, demanding it leave the area at once. These provocations are becoming increasing common in spite of the fact that mutual South China Sea claimants agreed in the ASEAN format to adopt an approach to disputed territories that rejects hostility and embraces dialogue as the surest means of resolving any lingering ASEAN-China disagreements. After Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pioneered a dialogue based process with China involving cooperative exploitation of maritime resources beginning in 2017, the rest of ASEAN adopted a multilateral dialogue based approach to the matter in 2018. Last year, it became clear that Duterte’s win-win success inspired many of his ASEAN colleagues including Vietnam, a neighbour of China which remains committed to a dialogue based process in spite of past postures.
In this sense, it is getting harder for the United States to weaponise the South China Sea issue as all regional states are committed to respectful and rules based conflict resolution mechanisms that are Asian owned, authored and executed. Yet while these developments are a signal to any military in the region or beyond that any maritime provocations against any power in the South China Sea are counterproductive and are insulting to those who embraced the spirit of dialogue based commitments, the US nevertheless continues to sail its ships into Chinese waters in spite of the fact that this solves none of the issues that China’s ASEAN partners continue to discuss with Beijing.
As the USS McCampbell’s calculated provocation came hours before a US trade delegation landed in Beijing, deductive reasoning would lead one to conclude that the two matters are related. The deeper question remains: what does the US hope to achieve in trade talks by staging such an overt, offensive and completely useless provocation?
The answer is that the US it trying intimidate China in the trade talks by implying that the longer the trade war persists, the more such provocations will continue. However, this simplistic zero-sum attitude negates several important factors and as such will be unsuccessful. First of all, China did not start the trade war and has always stated that it remains Chinese policy to work constructively with Washington to end the trade war as soon as possible. Secondly, China has consistently shown its ability to compartmentalise its manifold relations with the US. While China has long been sceptical regarding US military policy in both north and south east Asia, this has not prohibited China from working to cement win-win trading and investment partnerships with American firms. Indeed, even in the aftermath of the brutal violation of Chinese businesswoman Meng Wanzhou’s human rights by Canadian authorities acting on US orders, China still stated that it is Beijing’s steadfast goal to resolve the trade war on a win-win basis.
Finally, while China would never sign an imprudent agreement on trade with a zealous protectionist USA, China is confident that due to its own model of pursuing free trade and allowing for more imports and capital to flow into China than at any time in the history of the PRC – Beijing will be able to reach an agreement that is good for the US businesses like Apple that have been hit by the trade war, while being equally good for consumers in both nations in terms of stimulating more cost effective market diversity.
Beyond this, China’s influential Global Times newspaper has published an editorial in which the author states that from the Chinese perspective, the latest American South China Sea provocation appears to be a sign of desperation. According to the op-ed:
“The China-US vice-ministerial-level trade talks started in Beijing on Monday as the two sides recently signaled their wish to end the bitter trade war. The talks’ possible progress will be in line with the pressing needs of the bilateral relationship and international politics.
On the same day, Western media outlets reported that a US guided-missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of China’s Xisha Islands in the South China Sea. It is hard to determine if the US is trying to use this provocation as a bargaining chip to gain a diplomatic advantage in trade talks. If that is the case, the US’ strong willingness to reach an agreement is abundantly clear.
The trade war involves the great interests of both countries, which can hardly be affected by a US warship touring in Chinese waters.
The fundamental reason for the extensive and bitter trade war lies in China’s rise, which has shaken the US-led global power structure. Stirring up all kinds of uneasiness and impulsiveness, the trade war has resulted in a rather negative tendency for China-US relations, bringing more uncertainties and anxiety.
No matter how hard, the only choice for both countries is to explore peaceful coexistence while avoiding mutual strategic exhaustion.
A win-win result for China and the US seems to deviate from the orthodoxy of games between major powers, but the zero-sum game is even tougher to play”.
In this sense, China’s attitude is actually one of bemusement more than rage. Many in China are perplexed by the fact that a country as powerful as the US still is should act like a frightened bully rather than a respectful colleague to its Chinese economic partner. While China will always stand up for its interests in the military, economic and diplomatic sectors, this in no way negates America’s ability to reach win-win outcomes for its businesses sectors, its consumer-citizens and its national coffers. For China there is nothing mutually exclusive about reaching any of these outcomes.
This is the essence of the win-win model and it is one that China continues to pursue both with close and long term partners as well as among nations with an unfortunate tendency to slip back into an antagonistic stance.