The U.S. Navy has conducted exercises with both the Armed Forces of the Philippines Navy and the Vietnam People’s Navy in recent weeks. The United States also diplomatically emphasized its continued military commitment to the Philippines, a formal ally.

The previously-scheduled exercises come at a time of intensifying regional tensions in the South China Sea over territorial disputes. Galrahn has already pointed out the mounting potential for an incident.

But there is also the question of not whether the U.S. will continue to conduct routine exercises but how it will respond in a crisis. In this, the American position remains deliberately ambiguous — specifically with the key issue of territorial disputes, in which the U.S. has no official position but insists that it supports its ally. But while this ambiguity certainly has utility, it does open the question of what the regional perception of the American security guarantee is and will be in the years ahead.

When the Republic of Korea Navy corvette ChonAn was sunk in 2010 by what was almost certainly a North Korean torpedo, Seoul wanted and expected the rapid deployment of the USS George Washington (CVN 73) to the Yellow Sea as a demonstration of the American commitment. This was something that took time and that the United States hesitated to do because of the implications for U.S.-Chinese relations. Any incident in the South China Sea will probably not be as clear cut as the sinking of the ChonAn and it will more directly involve China. And confronting China entails significant economic implications at a particularly sensitive time economically.

So the question is how does the U.S. balance short-term expediencies and longer-term interests? Is it properly aware of and properly weighing those longer-term interests? Not that the U.S. should have necessarily played the Russian invasion of South Ossetia in 2008 any differently (though it was a brilliant maneuver on the part of the Russians), but the perception of the value and credibility of the American security guarantee is certainly in need of some quality maintenance. How aware is the U.S. that China, like Russia before it, will be seeking to erode the regional perception of that value and credibility, particularly as the competition in the South China Sea continues to heat up? And how prepared is it to prioritize rebuilding that value and credibility at a time when there are many competing and nearer-term demands?

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy, Maritime Security, Navy

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  • Aaron Brotman

    Ok, it’s important not to jump to too many conclusions about Chinese intentions and capabilities. They are very complex and I do not think it’s possible to understand them all. In fact, I don’t think President Hu understands them all. But identifying Chinese interests is a bit easier: free flow of commerce through the South China Sea, international acquiescence and legitimacy for drilling for oil and gas in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, maintenance of current peaceful relations between PRC, ASEAN, Japan and Korea and policies that continue to bring Taiwan closer to the PRC.

    These interests intersect with ours on many levels. We want free flow of commerce, peace in East Asia is a good thing because last time we intervened there it didn’t go so well, and the trends during the Bush administration where Taiwan grew closer to China turned out to work much better for US interests than those of the late Clinton administration.

    That said, there is a territorial dispute that China considers to be among its “core interests.” Neighboring countries stand to gain from potential oil and gas fields but the United States has no real stakes in the game. Therefore, the type of credibility we should be worrying about is diplomatic. We should act as a leader in this dispute and bring the parties to the negotiation table where we can show our role as an impartial actor. This will help to a) disarm China’s legitimate fear of being surrounded and b) boost our involvement in peaceful politics of the region.

    One thing is certain, the State Department and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be working to resolve this dispute, not the US Navy and the PLA Navy.

  • Matt Yankee

    Beware of the little chinaman syndrome.

  • YN2(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III

    The answer is to keep the situation from evolving into a direct challenge to our level of commitment once hostilities break out in the SCS, right?

    Convince all Nations around the SCS that it is in their collective interest to defend one and other with the added support of SEVENTH Fleet, and the Aussies.

    Like Aaron said, the solution is diplomatic. Though, in terms of diplomacy, proximity and economic clout count as much as ships.

  • Derrick

    Well, within the context of this blog, militarily, the US has China surrounded: US forces in Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea and Australia should be sufficient to contain and control any stupid military action attempted by China. Plus at least the George Washington has nuclear weapons on board, so that’s a huge deterrent from China trying anything openly hostile. I think everyone there has enough nukes to discourage open hostilities.

    Most likely everyone will be forced to negotiate in any type of issue…so I guess I agree with Aaron’s approach.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    It would seem a bit on the foolish side to attribute such benign motivations to the People’s Republic of China in regards to both the South China Sea and to the United States.

    And a stark reminder that negotiations and diplomacy had better be backed up by capability and will. Our adversaries understand it, surely. It will be our folly to forget it. Before we declare the solution to be “diplomatic”, we should be damned certain we still know how that comes about. It is never, ever, from the position of weakness.

  • Matt Yankee

    Quacking about diplomatic solutions while the Chinese board and beat fisherman in their own waters is projecting weakness. Don’t be surprised if they think we are a duck for quacking and wobbling as we are doing. How about we ram one of their “fishing” boats so as to bite like the big dog we really are. Put them on their heels for a change. OR just sucker punch the Varyag with an ADCAP. They didn’t care too much about the Chonan so beat them at their own game. And don’t stop the beating until they act like the duck. The Enterprise would be the mean old dog with the bow for the bite.

  • I think the heart of my question is how we will decide to walk the walk? How willing are we to deploy military force in support of an ally who wants it and will use our response to that request to gauge the seriousness and strength of the American security guarantee? Just as incidents will happen, there will be formal allies and potential allies in the South China Sea that will ask for more than diplomatic rhetoric from the United States Navy in response. And it will inevitably be a politically inconvenient time. (Russia chose the timing on Georgia very carefully.) We showed with the ChonAn that we will hesitate if more immediate concerns arise. Did we learn anything from that, or is the South Korean perception of the American response to the ChonAn what our allies in the South China Sea can expect from us in the future?

  • UltimaRatioReg


    That is precisely the question. Not a new situation, not a new area of interest, not new allies for the US. In times past, we have made the mistake of underestimating our enemy, overestimating our own strength and that of our allies, and coming to the worst of solutions. Naval power large enough to be targeted for destruction by our enemies, too large for us to write off, yet not large enough to defeat (or even substantially influence) our enemy’s strategic plans.

  • Matt Yankee

    Another important thing is how do we perceive ourselves. Are we the big dogs still?

    The bully can be humbled very quickly. No UN fairy is going to do it for us.

  • Derrick

    America is the only global superpower around currently. No ifs ands or buts about that.

    I thought America already has a treaty with several countries in that region (SEATO?) so it has no choice but to respond to crises in the South China Sea as they occur.

    As for determining how the US should respond, I personally require more info regarding the particular situation…ie satellite photos, etc. which are probably classified and definitely out of bounds for Canadians like me. 🙂

    The fact that this question was even raised in this forum gives me confidence in American resolve.

  • UltimaRatioReg



    With at least a regional adversary announcing intentions to challenge that status, and behaving accordingly. Resolve in such a situation is measured by combat power. Which, in all that water, is almost exclusively maritime. Precisely what is shrinking for the USN and growing for PLAN.

    SEATO has been dead for 35 years. ASEAN is precisely the forum which Red China is attempting to dominate militarily and economically, which is a blend of the two for them.

  • Derrick

    Is there enough water in the South China Sea to squeeze in another CVBG or even a single CVN?

    Perhaps mining those waters (during a hot war) would be a cheaper way of containing an aggressive Chinese navy?