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Rogue wave

By ZHENG XIANWU and WANG TENGFEI | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-05-21 09:37
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US' 'integrated deterrence' strategy in the South China Sea is making the situation more turbulent, crisis-prone and militarized

As the United States increasingly perceives China to be a strategic competitor, the Joe Biden administration has sought to maintain the US' competitive advantage by formulating an effective deterrence strategy.

To this end, the Biden administration has formally introduced the concept of "integrated deterrence" at the government level and giving it concrete meaning through policy practice, based on the Donald Trump administration's extended and expanded concept of deterrence.

The essence of the strategy is to integrate forces and resources across all domains to build a highly coordinated and networked deterrence system so as to meet the demands of the times and a future war environment.

For the US, the South China Sea is one of the priority areas to engage in geopolitical competition with China, maintain its strategic dominance in the Western Pacific region, and contain China's development.

For China, the South China Sea not only concerns its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, but also concerns its national security and vital interests.

Under the "integrated deterrence" strategy, the US' South China Sea policy has changed significantly, with more use of all sorts of military and non-military measures to achieve the goal of deterring China.

In addition to "freedom of navigation operations", proximity reconnaissance and multilateral joint military exercises, the Biden administration has attached greater importance to roping in its allies and partners to jointly exert pressure on China, increasing the presence of forward military bases, and scaling up political, economic, legal, diplomatic, and paramilitary inputs. All these moves are aimed at making the costs of China's operations in the South China Sea unbearably high.

The Biden administration's integrated deterrence strategy, featuring all-round pressure and engagement, has severely endangered peace and stability in the South China Sea.

To start with, it has intensified interference by outside forces.

Under the guidance of this strategy, the US has been going all out to rope in its allies and other external forces to participate in geopolitical competition in the "Indo-Pacific "region. It has been constantly sowing discord between China and other countries surrounding the South China Sea and carrying out provocative joint military actions in the South China Sea targeting China, which has aggravated regional tensions and increased instability in the South China Sea.

At present, external interference led by the US has become the biggest contributing factor to the deteriorating situation in the South China Sea and the biggest destroyer of maritime rules in the region.

Second, it has provocated unilateral actions by claimant states on the South China Sea issue.

On the South China Sea issue, some claimant countries have been promoting the "enlargement" and "internationalization" of the disputes as their main strategy, hoping that US-led external interference can serve as a counterbalance against China in the region. By doing so, they wish to consolidate and expand the vested interests through unilateral actions so as to support their claims in the South China Sea.

Alongside in-depth adjustments of the US' South China Sea policy under the "integrated deterrence "strategy, the Biden administration has increased security assistance and diplomatic support to claimant countries that oppose China on the South China Sea issue. This has made some claimant countries, such as the Philippines, more eager to rev up unilateral infringements and provocations in the South China Sea.

Third, it has intervened in the establishment of regional rules and order in the South China Sea.

The Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea represents the joint efforts by China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states to establish a security order and rules in the South China Sea. However, negotiations on the COC have met with growing resistance as a result of interference by the US and other outside forces.

Nowadays, under the "integrated deterrence" strategy pursued by the Biden administration, the US' South China Sea policy has been increasingly militarized. It has been beefing up diplomatic pressure, economic temptation, and security assistance to ASEAN members, especially by using Vietnam and the Philippines to exert influence on the COC negotiation process. This has made the negotiation process more complicated and difficult and made it even more difficult for China and ASEAN countries to manage the disputes in the South China Sea by establishing rules.

Fourth, it has affected the overall picture of China-US relations and pushed up the risk of conflicts between the two countries.

Deterrence is a political form of communication with high risks — there exists a high risk of miscalculation caused by incidents and accidents. If deterrence fails, it will be a costly and difficult matter for both sides.

In recent years, the South China Sea issue has been heating up and escalating, gradually evolving into a focus of the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China.

As the US' South China Sea policy becomes increasingly aggressive and adventurous under the "integrated deterrence" strategy — such as the unprecedented strategic adjustments in the South China Sea, as well as closer linkages between the US' South China Sea deployments and strategic deployments near the Taiwan Strait — the likelihood of close contact and friction between China and the US has been constantly growing, which could easily lead to misjudgments and actions that lead to misunderstandings.

With the increasingly fierce strategic competition between China and the US and the deepening structural contradictions between the two countries, a series of military operations by the US in the South China Sea, including the deployment of forward bases, frequent proximity reconnaissance and joint military exercises, have become the biggest factors behind the deteriorating security situation in the South China Sea.

It is foreseeable that under the guidance of the "integrated deterrence" strategy, the US' deterrence-oriented military operations and political, economic, and diplomatic measures in the South China Sea targeting China will become even more diversified. High-pressure deterrence will become the norm. The future situation in the South China Sea will be more turbulent, crisis-prone, internationalized and militarized.

China should make preparations to respond to the worsening situation, by enhancing its national strength, integrating maritime forces, implementing neighborhood diplomacy, advancing regional cooperation and establishing rules. It should also optimize inter-agency coordination and decision-making processes and promote the sharing of information so as to prevent the South China Sea situation from further deteriorating.

Furthermore, any kind of compulsory interventions by external forces including the US will do no good to maritime cooperation and the resolution of the South China Sea issue. Rather, it will only undermine the building of mutual trust among littoral states of the South China Sea, jeopardize the existing cooperation in the region, and aggravate the already complicated situation in the South China Sea.

Regional countries should remain highly vigilant against external interference led by the US.In the meantime, they should make up their minds to give up the mindset of taking advantage of the so-called "window period" to carry out unilateral infringement actions.

They should, on the basis of implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, seize the opportunity of the COC negotiations, strive to make substantial progress in cooperation among littoral states of the South China Sea, and set up a regional mechanism for maritime cooperation, so as to take the initiative in South China Sea security. They should join hands to truly build the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation.

Zheng Xianwu is a professor and associate dean of the Institute of International Relations, Nanjing University. Wang Tengfei is an assistant researcher at the Research Center for Oceans Law and Policy, National Institute for South China Sea Studies. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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