Op-Ed: Could Conflict in the South China Sea Lead to a 'New Cold War'?

Nguyen Manh Hung was a panelist at Asia Society New York's June 4 event South China Sea: Maritime Lanes and Territorial Claims, which you can watch in its entirety here. Highlights from the discussion are embedded above.

It has been 16 years since Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro warned us about The Coming Conflict with China. For government officials and for most of American analysts, it is impolitic and perhaps imprudent to talk about the possibility of a new Cold War. But recent aggressive behaviors of China and the apparent collapse of ASEAN cohesion in the face of the China's challenge requires a reconsideration of the current optimistic attitude. Successful policy depends on calling a spade a spade.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent trip to Asia was apparently designed to serve two purposes: to reaffirm 
the seriousness of American engagement in Asia, and to persuade China that the Asia-Pacific region is "big enough" for both countries, that America's "Asia pivot" does not necessarily lead to containment of China, and that it is in everybody's interests to peacefully manage the conflict in the South China Sea. The Chinese official media responded to her entreaties with hostile comments accusing the U.S. of being a "sneaky troublemaker sitting behind some nations in the region and pulling strings" and attempting to contain China's "naval growth." Chinese officials warned that the United States must respect China's "sovereignty and territorial integrity" and stop interfering in the South China Sea conflict. The decision to send Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to the region and China immediately after the Clinton's trip was intended to ease the suspicions between Washington and Beijing over the strategic impact of the row between China and Japan over the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) islands.

The situation today eerily resembles the first two years after the end of World War II at which time there was hope that the United States and the Soviet Union could cooperate to secure the peace in Europe. But, in violation of the Yalta agreement, the Soviet Union expanded its control over Eastern Europe and demanded joint control of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits that lay within Turkish jurisdiction. The first articulate warning about Soviet expansionism came from George Kennan in his long telegram followed by Winston Churchill's famous "Iron Curtain" speech in March 1946. However, it took a full more year before the crises in Greece and Turkey forced the Truman administration to take a stand and officially declare the policy of containment against the Soviet Union.

Today, China has shown every sign of being a revisionist power in Asia. By publishing its nine-dashed line, it laid claim to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, encroaching upon the territorial waters of smaller neighbors. Slowly but steadily, it has aggressively enforced its claims by imposing a unilateral ban on fishing in disputed waters, roping off the entrance to the Scarborough Shoals off the Philippine coast, cutting undersea cables of Vietnamese ships conducting oil exploration in its own exclusive economic zone, and opening bids for oil exploration in area claimed by Vietnam. U.S. officials and congressional leaders have all deplored China's "excessive claims" that do "not conform to international law." But even though some congressional leaders issued a clear warning of the potential consequences of China's acting like a "schoolyard bully towards its maritime neighbors" and their assertion that the U.S. will "not allow China to assert hegemony over the region," there is a larger chorus that pleads that the U.S. should not stir up nationalist sentiment in China, that peace is better than war, negotiation better than conflict, and that every effort must be made to seek a peaceful resolution to the maritime disputes, and all efforts should be focused on avoiding a return to containment.

None of the major powers want a return to the Cold War. The small countries of ASEAN certainly do not want to be caught in the rivalry between the United States and China. However, the fact of the matter is that there is a clear conflict of interest between the United and China in the South China Sea. While the United States wants freedom of navigation beyond the 12-mile territorial limit, China demands the exercise of that freedom requires Chinese permission. While the United States wants a multipolar system in Asia, China is seeking hegemony, not balance of power. General Li Qinglong, deputy secretary of China Council for National Security Policy Studies, made clear that the South China Sea conflict was "in essence an indirect face-off between China and the United States in the South China Sea."

To avoid a direct face-off between the United States and China, a buffer is needed. This role can be played by an increasingly strong and united ASEAN. Since neither the United States nor most ASEAN members accepts China's maritime claims, an equitable, long-term solution to the South China Sea conflict must begin with China backing off from its nine-dashed line claim and its willingness to abide by recognized international law. It must be the result of multilateral diplomacy that recognizes a major role for China while protecting the legitimate rights and interests of smaller nations, and is supported by a balance of power in the South China Sea that does not favor the Chinese vision of an Asian regional order.

In brief, an equitable and durable solution for the conflict in the South China Sea rests on three mutually reinforcing and mutually dependent factors: Chinese restraint, ASEAN solidarity, and American commitment. A strong and united ASEAN is the most important component of this equation. ASEAN solidarity can empower the countries in the region and offer them the advantage of collective bargaining power. It can help deter Chinese aggressive behaviors, and encourage continued U.S. involvement as a "stabilizing factor" in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, the failure of ASEAN to support the Philippines in the Scarborough incident last May, its spectacular failure at the July 2012 ASEAN Summit to agree on a joint communiqué, and the feeble attempt to form a common ASEAN front as well as the near-impossibility of coming up with an implementable code of conduct in the China Sea seriously weaken the prospects of ASEAN standing as a much needed buffer between the United States and China, and magnify the likelihood of direct conflict between China’s "core interests" and the U.S. "national interests" in the South China Sea.

During Secretary Clinton's visit, Chinese leaders insisted that the U.S. respect its expanded concept of "territorial integrity" and stop interfering in the South China Sea dispute. This is tantamount to demanding that the U.S. abandon its role as the dominant player in the South China Sea. If the United States backs off, ASEAN will be forced to accommodate China, and U.S. influence and credibility in the area will be greatly diminished.

Unless the United States is willing to play second fiddle to China in the Asia-Pacific area, containment appears to be the only alternative. China’s effort to divide and conquer and weaken ASEAN cohesion in order to push out the United States may have an unintended consequence of isolating China and reviving the Cold War and containment.

The new Cold War, if it occurs, will not be as tense and apocalyptic as the period that ended after the Cuban missile crisis. It will be more like the détente period when both confrontation/competition and cooperation took place between the major protagonists in the new context of economic globalization and interdependence. But, it could still lead to a face-off between opposing military alliances, the struggle to define spheres of influence, and military realignment in Asia, all of which would be an unpleasant reality for smaller ASEAN countries.

The sooner this danger of a new Cold War is recognized and acted upon, the better the chance of avoiding it. If the United States wants to preserve its influence and credibility in Asia and does not want to be pushed out of the South China Sea, the United States must stand firm and find ways to help ASEAN to stop further Chinese orchestrated faits accomplis. If the ASEAN countries do not want to get caught in the rivalry between the United States and China, they must abandon the nearsighted search for an individual/unilateral solution and act together as a united group, and fast. If China does not want to be isolated and contained, it must modify its excessive demands and contribute seriously to the peaceful management of the South China Sea conflict.

About the Author

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Nguyen Manh Hung is an Associate Professor of Government and International Politics at George Mason University, and an expert on the Asia Pacific region.