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Asia's Game of Thrones
China Tests the Waters

A recent FT article details what has been a naive U.S. policy towards China’s maritime territorial aggression: taking China at its word. Chinese officials promised to behave less aggressively after a bitter 2012 dispute with the Philippines over a contested reef in the South China Sea called the Scarborough Shoal. U.S. policymakers apparently expected a verbal agreement that China would retreat from the area, but that has not played out; A Chinese official responded to American assertions of bad faith simply by saying “I do not know what agreement you are referring to.” 

Needless to say, many other promises have not been kept; China has become generally more assertive in its efforts at territorial expansion over the past few years. As the U.S. has focused on taking a hard rhetorical line against China while hedging against the contingency of all-out war, Beijing has carved out a strategy for exploiting that focus:

In Beijing, some talk of a “Scarborough model”, a template for China gradually to exert control over the western Pacific by snapping up one land feature at a time – a sort of incremental revisionism that slowly squeezes out the US without ever providing a reason for a confrontation.

We have been warning about this Chinese strategy, which we call the Cabbage Leaf Strategy, for some time. Now, hopefully, U.S. officials are catching on, learning a playground maxim that China already seems to know, “Sticks and may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

In recent months, the US has come to two broad conclusions about its approach to the South China Sea. The first is that its efforts at deterrence are having only limited impact. Despite considerable US attention and rhetoric since 2010, China has slowly continued to shift the status quo in ways that are rattling both many of its neighbours and the US.

The second is that US military strategy in the region has to some extent been asking the wrong question. For several years, some of the Pentagon’s best minds have been focused on how the US would win a protracted war with China and have come up with a new concept – known as AirSea Battle – to ensure continued access of US aircraft and ships to contested areas during a conflict.

“We need to think less about a hypothetical major war and more about the actual situation we are confronting on a daily basis,” says a former senior US commander in the region. “It should not be beyond our wits to devise a strategy to outmanoeuvre China.”

The military options being considered by the US revolve around collecting more information on Chinese actions – from surveillance aircraft or radar – and increased air and naval operations that will challenge efforts by China to claim control of new areas.

The dilemma for the US is to find ways to raise the costs for China without sparking a confrontation over territories that most Americans would consider a worthless bunch of rocks.

This kind of strategic adjustment is welcome, and long overdue. When a top Chinese scholar is telling the New York Times that Xi Jinping’s impression that President Obama is a lame duck is driving Xi to “push and push again” in the South China and East China Seas, it’s time to rethink your priors.

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  • S.C. Schwarz

    You are too optimistic. Changing policy in this area would require Obama to recognize that, (1) his previous policy was wrong, and (2) his own actions, in Syria, in the Ukraine, and in other places, are part of the problem. Since Obama is The One his policies can’t be wrong and his actions can’t be causing the problem. Therefore there will be no changes as long as Obama is President.

  • gabrielsyme

    A recent FT article details what has been a naive U.S. policy towards China’s maritime territorial aggression: taking China at its word.

    It is a little odd that Obama is so trusting of foreign autocrats (Putin, Erdogan, Maliki, the Chinese) while he barely deigns even to communicate with congressional Republicans. He flatters and trusts external enemies while he conducts an ongoing scorched-earth campaign against his domestic enemies.

    Maybe we need to consider the possibility that, in addition to Obama’s other deficits of character, the man is also an imbecile.

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