Saturday, December 31, 2016

US Brinksmanship Will Turn SCS Into a Powder Keg Again
By Li Kaisheng
Global Times
2016/12/29 18:18:39

Whether the South China Sea (SCS) disputes will remain on the front burner after Donald Trump takes office does not only depend on what he wants to do, but also what he can do. The evolution of international relations, after all, is a combination of power and realism, thus, what Trump can do with the perpetual issue matters the most.

If Trump intends to provoke China in the SCS, he can make a list of options and tick off the ones that suit him the best. His cognitive ability, personality and operating style can also make a difference.

There are discussions about whether Trump will bring international arbitration back on the table. But, there is little chance because even the Philippines, a once fervent advocate under former president Benigno Aquino III, is now barely committed to it anymore under President Rodrigo Duterte. Trump, a naysayer of many international norms, is also unlikely to stir up trouble in this way.

It is possible that Washington will continue instigating antagonism by the agency of countries that have conflicts with China. There is no doubt that Trump would like to see the US have more followers, but currently many ASEAN members, which are also claimants in the SCS, want to improve relationships with China. It will take time for the US to reverse the current, which is not a favored option for Trump as he is eager to "make America great again" and prefers short-term bargaining than far-sighted planning.

The US is most likely to provoke China by intensifying warship cruises and surveillance activities in the SCS, because the Pentagon is able to make these moves without support from its allies. While it can impose pressures on China, it is also in line with the demands of the Trump government to enhance US Navy for a show of strength.

Thus, the US might turn the SCS into a platform for China-bashing and muscle-flexing. But, for China, the SCS disputes are not a chink in the armor as the Taiwan question. Trump disregards protocols and conventions, so he might prefer challenging China over the Taiwan question, and the recent phone call incident is a prelude.

Although the SCS might not be the first choice for Trump, the region is still a powder keg. But China's recent moves in and around the waters, such as the aircraft carrier training sessions, are indicative of Beijing's determination to guard its doorstep, remind the US that the SCS is not its playground, and warn the Pentagon that China will take countermeasures if necessary.

China might take more assertive actions against US reconnaissance and its breach into Chinese waters by deploying more mobile military capabilities in the SCS and equipping relevant islands with defensive weapons. If the US goes too far, China will consider setting up offensive weaponry on these islands.

Brinksmanship, if handled without caution, is very likely to lead to combat. In that scenario, Trump will have to decide if he wants to escalate tensions and destroy Chinese vessels, warplanes or island facilities. Without any doubt, that will result in a destructive war between the two major powers, in which there will not be a winner.

Given the fact that China prioritizes territorial issues as part of its "core interests," and Trump's uncompromising personality, if there is not an effective mechanism of risk control between both sides, a dangerous regional conflict is breeding.

To avoid the worst situation, the most important step both governments must take after Trump takes office is to establish a communication channel to find a common ground on global issues such as counterterrorism and the North Korean nuclear crisis. Once both sides can nurture consensus over these terms, they will ramp down the significance of Taiwan and the SCS on their agendas.

As for trade and currency issues that Trump has constantly brought up during his campaign, China should deal with them by following the "business is business" principle. China should stick to the belief that cooperation is still the mainstream of the Sino-US relationship, and the US should not arbitrarily play the Taiwan and SCS cards. Only in this way can either country avoid toeing the bottom lines of both sides and make sure their long-term interests are guaranteed.

The author is an associate research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

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