The Eighth Annual CSIS South China Sea Conference
The Eighth Annual CSIS South China Sea Conference
Center for Strategic and International Studies - July 26, 2018
Remarks by Ted S. Yoho, D.V.M.
Chairman, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific
House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Observations on the Direction of U.S.-China Relations
At the Aspen Security Forum last week, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats asked if the People’s Republic of China was a “true adversary or a legitimate competitor.” It was a smart and succinct way to phrase a big question that has the utmost importance for the United States in the 21st century.Director Coats is right—the United States must decide whether to reframe its relationship with China. Throughout all of our contemporary diplomacy, the U.S.-China relationship has been defined by management.
Since Deng Xiaoping announced China’s “reform and opening up,” U.S. diplomacy towards the Middle Kingdom focused on engagement. Western diplomats attempted to manage China’s rise and guide China into a constructive place in the world order we built.
In 2005, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said, “it is time to take our policy beyond opening doors to China’s membership into the international system: we need to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder in that system.” Over a decade later, there is a growing consensus that this policy failed.
As we’ve moved beyond attempts to manage China’s rise, engagement has slowly gave way to competition. But this more competitive framework is still defined by management. In U.S. relations with China today, we seek to cooperate where it is possible, and compete where our interests do not align.The limits of this framework are becoming clear as well. Xi Jinping has set China on a course that is increasingly out of step with international norms and adverse to U.S. interests. It will cause an unsustainable tension between our efforts to cooperate, and the strong actions the United States needs to take to protect our national interests.
We are moving into a new phase of U.S.-PRC relations, from competition to opposition. Some of our most well-informed national security leaders speak as if this day has already come.
At the Aspen Forum, the deputy assistant director of the CIA’s East Asia Mission Center, Michael Collins, said that Xi Jinping is waging “a cold war by definition” against the United States.
Collins said Xi Jinping’s cold war “exploits all avenues of power licit and illicit, public and private, economic and military, to undermine the standing of your rival relative to your own standing without resorting to conflict.”
The day before, FBI director Christopher Wray called the PRC “the broadest, most challenging, most significant threat we face as a country.”
The United States is reaching a critical moment, when we must decide if our priority is still relationship management, or if the PRC’s threats and adverse actions are significant enough that we must vigorously oppose them, even if opposition risks constructive parts of the relationship. The South China Sea is an ideal case study or question.I believe the PRC’s conduct in the South China Sea shows why the United States’ relationship with Xi Jinping’s China is must now be defined by opposition, and why we are long overdue for a shift to a more confrontational stance.
If we are to advance our national interests relative to the South China Sea, and protect the interests of the other claimants, our regional partners, and the rules-based international order at large, the United States must begin to vigorously oppose the PRC’s moves to consolidate its position in the Sea.
U.S. Interests in the South China Sea
While the South and East China Seas may seem distant, its waterways have significant bearing on the United States’ place in the world. The disputed areas are key global economic and trade arteries. Nearly 30 percent of the world’s maritime trade moves through the area. Domination of these routes might allow a regional power to use disruption as leverage.These sea lanes are also essential for the energy security of key U.S. defense allies and partners. Most of the energy supplies of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan come through the South China Sea. Energy insecurity among our partners in the region could have serious implications for our ability to handle potential contingencies arising from North Korea and elsewhere.
The area is also a critical test case for worries among our allies and partners that the United States lacks sufficient commitment to the region. There is a growing sense that China is now able to contest U.S. power on the high seas.
The perceived potency of our military and diplomatic power is very much at risk. The South and East China Seas are strategic keys to East Asia, and acquiescence to restrictions on U.S. forces’ freedom of operations there would undermine the U.S. security guarantee, and regional and world stability.
Ultimately, the South China Sea is a battleground of norms. In the post-World War II era, the United States has been the world’s only truly global maritime power. We have wielded this power responsibly and upheld the law of the sea as customary international law, even if we have not ratified UNCLOS.In the modern era, China has been the world’s greatest beneficiary of rules designed to promote global security and economic openness. But China is using its growing reach to discard or change these rules as it sees fit, seeking a “might makes right” approach to the seas.
From Bad to Worse
The Trump administration has begun a long overdue effort to push back. Freedom of navigations operations are relatively routine, normal, and quiet. Members of Congress, and nearly the entire American policymaking community had been pleading for this since China began its construction of artificial islands in 2013, and any increase in U.S. presence in the disputed territory is a welcome change.The United States is also continuing modest efforts to build maritime capacity among the surrounding states. However, any honest evaluation of U.S. efforts in the South China Sea will find that it is not nearly enough.To date, nothing the United States has done has slowed, stopped, or reversed any adverse action by China in the South China Sea in any meaningful way.
U.S. interests in the South China Sea, and those of our partners, are in worse standing than they were a year and a half ago. The balance of military power continues to shift in China’s favor. Their artificial islands are much more militarized, with new weapons and radar emplacements, and regular demonstrations that these facilities can support serious military assets.
As a result, the other claimants are more timid, and have less room to speak up. International law still suffers from the untreated wound China dealt it by disregarding the binding arbitral ruling that invalidated the Nine-Dash Line. China has not been punished for this, but perversely rewarded with an upswing in China-Philippines relations.
Time to Change Our Approach
No one expected a more robust FONOPs program would roll back China’s island building, but many hoped more regular U.S. presence would at least deter further militarization. This has not proven to be the case. Our interests continue to degrade, even as our physical presence in the region begins to improve.The reason for this is a fundamental limitation of the U.S. policy approach to the South China Sea territorial dispute. The United States has always focused on the process by which the overlapping sovereignty claims are resolved, supporting the peaceful settlement of dispute according to lawful procedures by non-coercive measures.
Administration policy has always remained outcome-neutral, even if this neutrality is completely superficial. This focus on process means that the United States has never directly challenged China’s excessive sovereignty claims.FONOPs uphold the law of the sea, as written in the Law of the Sea Convention. But because UNCLOS only covers the use of the sea, not sovereignty over its features, no FONOP can directly challenge a bogus sovereignty claim. We will not be able to meaningfully advance U.S. and our partners’ interests in the South China Sea until we begin to do so.
The Trump administration should formally oppose the merits of China’s excess territorial claims in the South China Sea, and consider what options exist to challenge illegitimate sovereignty claims, not just restrictions on the freedom of the seas. Some believe taking sides in this manner would be untenable, because it would force the United States to align with some claimants against others. But I am not suggesting we adopt a position on every one—only that we reject China’s illegitimate claims.The United States is still the most potent strategic force in the region. Our silence on the merits of China’s claims reduces the freedom of the other claimants to speak up. On the other hand, adopting a stronger and more honest position could create more space for them to stand up for their own interests.
The United States must also begin imposing costs on China’s consolidation of power in the South China Sea. The United States’ South China Sea policy has failed thus far because we have not imposed any consequences in response to China’s island-building or militarization.
There has never been a reason for Xi Jinping to change his calculus, because his strategic gain has been worth the extremely low cost—which has never been more than some occasional bouts of negative press and international condemnation.We need to change the variables of Xi Jinping’s cost-benefit analysis. If we want to take this challenge seriously, the United States should be prepared to substantially increase its military footprint in the immediate area in lockstep with Chinese moves to militarize further.
Another option that has been suggested to Congress in recent years is an economic sanctions regime for entities involved in the construction of artificial islands. The legislation would be relatively straightforward, and at least one bill has been introduced to create such a program. But using such a tool effectively would require rigorous implementation, which has been a longstanding weak spot when it comes to Chinese commercial entities.Even at the height of “maximum pressure” on North Korea, the Treasury Department reportedly considered some Chinese banks too big to sanction. Using sanctions to get at the South China Sea problem effectively would take high-level will to cause China serious commercial pain, and it’s not clear that will is present when entities like ZTE are given a stay of execution.
We should also continue escalating the diplomatic costs we impose on Beijing. Disinviting the PRC from RIMPAC this year was a welcome and overdue development, which some Members of Congress have long asked for.We should follow up by inviting Taiwan to RIMPAC. As a responsible international player, Taiwan deserves an invitation on its own merits, but the invitation would have the helpful side benefit of increasing the diplomatic toll on Beijing and underscoring to the world that China is out of step with military norms.
Finally, we need to think outside the box and consider how to use asymmetric measures. It may be time to take a page out of China’s own playbook—if diplomacy has failed and there is no acceptable military response, then perhaps we move to economic measures.For example, to protest the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system deployment in the Republic of Korea, China reduced tourism to Korea and used political and regulatory pressure to attack Korean companies. Chinese commercial interests have significant exposure to regulatory gateways in the United States, and similar methods could be pursued.
The Escalation Trap
The United States needs to get the South China Sea right, because it is not a one-off challenge. In the South China Sea and the Crimea, a new kind of warfare is being pioneered by authoritarian, revisionist powers.They intend to do harm to freedom and democracy. They want to degrade the influence of the United States, and they aspire to break the global order to turn the world into a place where the weak are preyed upon by the strong.Called gray zone warfare, or “salami slicing” in the South China Sea, this type of warfare avoids outright conflict with a dominant power in favor of incremental actions. These individual steps bring the combatant closer and closer to its goal, all the while forcing its adversary into an escalation trap—responding is difficult, because to do so could trigger conflict.
These tactics have taught us a painful lesson about the need to respond powerfully and instantly. If the gray zone combatant manages to change the status quo, it’s too late for deterrence, and our usual deterrent tools like FONOPs will no longer work. We are forced to escalate, or do nothing.If the United States wants to check China’s aggression in the South China Sea without falling into this trap, we will need to re-evaluate the traditional escalation chain. We need to break the mold, because we’re only seeing the beginning of these tactics.
I hope some of the thoughts I’ve presented today contribute to this process, but the real value of today’s event will be the excellent panels that CSIS has brought together.There are so many standout scholars here today, many of which we’ve had the pleasure of having before the Asia Subcommittee, who can present an array of perspectives from throughout the region.
It has been my honor to precede them today—thank you very much