A hypothetical look at how US indecisiveness over the South China Sea can lead to military conflict
As the Philippines and China continue to square off over the Scarborough Shoal, there are very real fears that this disputes—an extension of the greater South China Sea disputes—could not only lead to regional instability, thereby setting back economic progress made by Asia-Pacific countries, but also war. Not unlike an elastic band stretched to its limits, all that is required for the Scarborough Shoal confrontation to erupt is one, irreconcilable mistake.
Although the cause may vary, we can imagine such a scenario playing out like as this:
The Worst Possible Thing
Television monitors were tuned to BBC, CNN, MSNBC, and every abbreviated news station at home and around the world. As with most breaking news, the stations, unless present at the scene with their own camera crews, were replaying the same video footage over and over.
Sitting at the head of the table in the Situation Room, the President of the United States grimly watched that same footage as the rest of the world: it was a blurry, shaky video clip of a ship on fire taken by one of the crew members. Sailors in fire-retardant gear rushed to extinguish the flames, which had charred the steel hull. Censored but noticeable were the bodies of dead sailors. The clip ended with the recording sailor turning his camera to another vessel—or rather, many vessels—on the horizon nearby. They were grey shapes, barely identifiable due to the footage’s poor quality. Fortunately for viewers at home, one particular news station that was ahead of the curve claimed in bold, capitalized characters beneath the video: “China Attacks Philippines.”
The President silently cursed the Chinese vessel that had fired the shot. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe it had simply been an errant warning shot. Certainly, however, the Chinese did not intend to strike the Filipino ship, which would rightfully be understood as an act of war. There was no hiding it now, though. The media was all over the incident like vultures to carrion.
The President turned to his National Security Council for options. Hours ago, shortly after news of the attack reached Manila, the Filipino president wasted little time reminding POTUS of the United States’ commitments under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines. As highlighted by the Filipino president under Article V of the MDT, “an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack… on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” Sure enough, that was what happened, except the American President, as well as his advisors, could not believe that this was the opening salvo of a war between China and the Philippines. The last thing his administration needed was to get bogged down in another war.
Unable to provide a straight answer to his Filipino counterpart, POTUS merely reaffirmed his country’s support of the Philippines, and the peace and security of the South China Sea. What he wanted to say but could not was that this attack was not an act of war but an act of stupidity, bad luck. Of course Beijing could not be expected to come out and say, “Oops, our mistake.” To do so would be to admit the incompetence of their naval commanders, and that was not bound to happen. Conversely, the President of the Philippines could not be seen by his people as weak or indecisive, especially after an incident as public as this.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff offered a middle-of-the-road military solution to the question of the MDT: he could have the Seventh Fleet, already present in the region, detach a small element to the Philippines, away from the Scarborough Shoal. At the very least, it would give the President the appearance of honoring the treaty without directly confront China, as well as remaining hands off on the question of sovereignty over the Shoal. Such a move would also buy the President time to seek a diplomatic solution to an unnecessary conflict. If, somehow, China and the Philippines could be persuaded to lower their swords, it was quite possible this incident could be resolved without further bloodshed.
The President nodded approvingly. He turned to his Secretary of State and asked that she keep on the Filipino Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs to prevent this incident from spiraling out of control. The Secretary assured the President she had been and remained in contact with her counterparts in Beijing and Manila, urging both sides to calm down and resolve the incident peacefully. In her conversations, the Chinese minister regretted the incident but stopped short of apologizing, reiterating that the United States need not get involved, whereas the Filipino secretary repeatedly insisted that Washington must act.
Stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, the President had his work cut out for him. He looked at the faces of his advisors, their grim determination to get the job done and get it done properly, and knew that he was in good company. As Commander-and-Chief, however, he was ultimately responsible for any decision carried out tonight. The situation was not nearly as clear-cut as Franklin D. Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor, or George H.W. Bush after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, but it was still a test. With the Philippines ready to go to blows with China and dragging the United States with it, this was a test he could not fail.
“All right,” said the President, soberly, “let’s get to work.”
An Uncertain Future
A fictional tale, of course, but it is not too hard to imagine a future where such events take place. The precarious nature of the Scarborough Shoal confrontation is like a gas leak, requiring only a spark for it to explode. In the event of a war, it is unlikely the Philippines would charge head on against China without American support, given the fairly large gap in military capabilities. Also, one can assume the White House would exhaust every avenue available to avoid direct conflict with China. Given the economic ties between the US and China, both countries, however fiery or combative their rhetoric, would avoid war against one another at all cost.
Yet, for the United States, its response to China’s assertiveness in the Pacific will determine its future in the region. China would like nothing more than to push the US out of Asia-Pacific, but it cannot do so forcefully. Rather than challenge the US directly, China has utilized the South China Sea disputes to test America’s commitments to the region. Many claimant states involved have expressed their opposition to China, but they have not found the assurances they desired in the US. While Washington has not been blind to the developments in the South China Sea, they have not been able to convince concerned states that the US should not be counted out. With a slow economy and perceived as being bogged down in the Middle East, America’s pivot to Asia-Pacific is slow in instilling confidence in countries such as Vietnam.
A clash between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, for example, would be the ultimate test of the United States’ commitment to Asia-Pacific. Just how willing is the US to challenge China directly? Washington cannot ignore such a clash, nor can it be dragged into a conflict it may not have any desire participating in. It is unlikely that Beijing will withdraw from its claims and will continue to push onwards, testing the limits of America’s response. If it can be demonstrated that the US will not intervene in the face of Chinese assertiveness, China will have won the battle of wills.
True, the United States may have a presence in the Pacific, but their willingness to square off against China in the event of the unthinkable remains questionable. While direct confrontation between the two countries may be unrealistic, the threat of China as perceived by its neighbors is much more certain.
The United States may find a role for itself in establishing or help forming an alliance between Southeast Asian nations, which can work to promote peace and security in the region. At present, opportunities for dialogue between Southeast Asian nations are limited to regional forums whose mandate and powers to effect change are severely limited. A new forum with concrete rules and responsibilities has the potential of changing not only the international political landscape in Southeast Asia, but finding peace between neighbors through diplomacy.
The White House should not leave the resolution of these disputes to chance, for there is no guarantee the outcome is the best or most desired for the US or the region as a whole. Despite their attempts to appear above the fray, the United States must wade into the South China Sea disputes, not simply to promote American interests (which, by doing so, will resolve nothing) but to broker some measure of peace between China and its neighbors. Should the US continue to procrastinate, the result of these disputes, including the much heated Scarborough Shoal, may spiral out of control.
(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law.)