Written by Liselotte Odgaard.

In December 2016, a Chinese navy vessel seized a US unmanned underwater drone in the South China Sea near the Philippines. The incident occurred around 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay Naval Air Station in the Philippines. According to the US, the drone was being operated by civilian contractors collecting unclassified scientific data in international waters in full compliance with international law. By contrast, China claimed that the US was using the drone to collect intelligence on the movements of Chinese military capacities in an area that is important for Chinese navy and nuclear submarines. China noted that for a long time, the US military has frequently dispatched vessels and aircraft to carry out close-in reconnaissance and military surveys within Chinese waters. China opposes these activities and demands that the US stop engaging in them and will continue to take necessary measures in response. Moreover, Beijing argued that it seized the drone to prevent the device from causing harm to the safety of navigation and personnel of passing vessels. Philippine defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana said they were unaware that the US had been using an underwater drone in its oceanographic survey in the South China Sea. At Washington’s request, China decided to hand back the drone to the US four days later.

The incident illustrates a number of characteristics of US-Chinese relations in the South China Sea. First, the US and China have different interpretations of the legal rights of military vessels and aircraft in areas that are defined as not being international waters. Beijing has not clarified China’s claim to sovereign territory and maritime zones in the South China Sea. It is also not clear to what extent China bases its claims on arguments of effective control or history. Consequently, the issue of if Chinese claims to jurisdiction interfere with Washington’s core interest of maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight is also not clarified. This is a US core value and a precondition of the continued effectiveness of the alliance system that forms a basic pillar of global US influence.

Second, the US priority to preserve the rules of international conduct that underpin the alliance system and China’s priority to expand its strategic influence close by preserves a situation of permanent testing of each other’s red lines to manifest their different interpretations of international law. China seeks to carve out space for itself alongside the US presence. It primarily sends unarmed or lightly armed vessels from its coast guard to semi-permanently patrol claim areas. This approach can be interpreted as a signal that Beijing does not seek to change the status quo by using deadly military force. By sending this signal, Chinese strategists seek to avoid a war they are not confident they can win, while attempting to demonstrate that the country does not have hostile intentions. Nonetheless, China will not allow itself to be the victim of perceived aggression against its territorial claims. Consequently, Beijing’s deployments of civilian and paramilitary forces is seen by the US as the use of irregular forces to push back US influence and to make it hard for the US to respond in a lawful manner which is considered proportionate to the means used by China.

Third, the US and China do not have the same deterrence doctrines and traditions, as exemplified by China’s offensive move of seizing the underwater drone to deter the US from gathering intelligence in the South China Sea. China sees its deterrence posture involving a military build-up on features in the South China Sea and the use of law enforcement capabilities to defend alleged sovereign rights as self-defensive in nature, aimed at dissuading and not coercing an opponent from taking specific actions. However, the US reads this behaviour as provocations that might jeopardize its fundamental interests and values. Another example is Washington’s strengthening of its forward military presence in the South China Sea intended to deter China from undermining the US alliance system. The US cooperates with its network of allies and strategic partners on deterring other states from challenging fundamental interests such as the freedom of navigation. US patrolling within twelve nautical miles of artificial islands and overflying the airspace of such islands are not considered violations of sovereignty by means of military capabilities. Instead, they are considered manifestations that international waters cannot be turned into national territorial waters by means of land reclamation. However, China reads this behaviour as provocations from a power with no right to exercise offshore deterrence in waters and airspace that is considered to be within Chinese jurisdiction. Consequently, US behaviour encourages China to push back at what Beijing sees as containment intended to prevent it from increasing its strategic space in its neighbourhood.

Fourth, for the above reasons, tension levels will continue to rise unless the two powers can establish conflict management mechanisms that institutionalize mutual reassurance that one power will not damage the core national interests of the other, this being the preservation of the US alliance system on one side and enhancing China’s strategic influence in its neighbourhood on the other. However, reassurance is hard to make effective when differences regarding interpretations of international law differ, their strategic objectives run up against each other, and different deterrence doctrines give rise to misperception of the other’s intentions. It requires that Washington persuades Beijing that it does not seek to prevent China from establishing a permanent presence alongside the US in the South China Sea. This requires US respect for Chinese demands for putting a halt to close-in surveillance of China, for not pursuing military activities in territories and waters claimed by China in the South China Sea, and for accepting a Chinese military and civilian presence in the area. Similarly, Beijing needs to persuade Washington that it does not seek to undermine the US alliance system by refraining from using aggression against other claimant states in the South China Sea, by demonstrating that China will not apply restrictions on US military freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, and by refraining from expanding its presence at the expense of the US, for example by not deploying military installations that pose a threat to US vessels and aircraft navigating in the South China Sea. This is a tall order for two strategic opponents who have not yet succeeded in establishing permanent conflict resolution mechanisms.

Dr Liselotte Odgaard is an Associate Professor at the Institute for Strategy, Royal Danish Defence College. Her areas of expertise include International Relations, Asia-Pacific Security and China Studies. Image credit: CC by COMSEVENTHFLT/Flickr