Twilight of Soft Power


It is difficult to be blithe about the dispatch of China’s HYSY981 drilling rig into disputed waters off the Vietnamese coast.

It actually would have been less of a provocation if the PRC had sent the aircraft carrier Liaoning down there instead.

One of the interesting by-products of the US “freedom of navigation” campaign in the South China Sea was the U.S. staking out a position that military operations by foreign vessels inside an Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ were not the kind of economic intrusion that UNCLOS intended to preclude.

In fact, after the harassment of the USNS Impeccable, a US Navy survey vessel that cruises through China’s EEZ towing various gadgets, the US went out of its way to assert that the ship was not doing anything that could be construed as economic or even dual use, such as mapping the ocean floor, and insisted the ship was there to track PLAN submarine movements.

By that logic, the Liaoning chugging through any waters in the South China Sea, in EEZs disputed or not, is something that nobody can complain about.  And indeed, that’s what the Liaoning did, on its shakedown cruise in the South China Sea at the end of 2013.

Sending the HYSY981, China’s billion dollar deep water drilling rig–with its Vaderesque Death Star mission to intimidate China’s hydrocarbon adversaries by demonstrating the PRC’s capabilities in unilateral development of contested oil fields–is exactly the kind of destabilizing EEZ gambit that raises tensions and invites a response.

The PRC has left itself some wiggle room by sending the rig to a location close to the Paracel Islands—held by China and deserving some as yet undetermined EEZ of its own—so that the waters are contested rather than unambiguously Vietnamese, but the nature of the incursion implies that the PRC was not expecting Vietnam to suck it up and ignore the PRC challenge.

The HYSY981 is reportedly escorted by a flotilla of dozens of vessels, including the PRC’s ubiquitous maritime patrol vessels and, I would assume, the various support vessels needed to go about its drilling business.  I also came across a report, well, actually a statement by an overwrought PRC nationalist blogger, that the rig is also escorted by anti-missile destroyers, which would be a major crossing of the line in bringing overtly military elements into the PRC’s economic contention with its maritime neighbors.

Even if the destroyers aren’t on the scene, the PRC is committed to dishing it out.

Vietnam released a video of PRC maritime patrols vessel ramming Vietnamese coast guard cutters trying to approach the rig, a sign that the PRC has no qualms about playing the pugnacious/threatening/aggressive regional power for a world audience.

The big question is Why?

Why, after Vietnam has been reasonably cooperative in its dealings with the PRC, most conspicuously by declining to openly support the Philippines’ arbitration case against the nine-dash-line, is the PRC picking on it in such an ostentatiously crude and overbearing fashion?

On the most immediate level, I think it’s because the PRC wants the practice—practice in engaging in relatively large, cumbersome naval operations in a genuinely hostile environment, but one in which the embarrassment of a catastrophic military encounter is pretty low.  Engaging in a major provocation inside Vietnam’s declared EEZ and getting the chance to bully Vietnam, with its underpowered marine forces and lack of a formal defense alliance with a capable regional (Japanese) or world (US) power, fills the bill.

One of the biggest challenges to the PRC’s military capability and credibility is that it hasn’t fought a hot war with anybody in the last 45 years.  With a provocation against Vietnam, the military system gets a nice little exercise.

Bearing in mind a comment I read that “the same capital ships that escorted the Liaoning are with the HYSY981″, it doesn’t take too much imagination to imagine the Liaoning plunked down inside the same kind of security cordon that now contains the rig.

On the intermediate level, I see the Vietnam gambit as preparation for a confrontation with the country that the PRC really wants to humiliate: the Philippines.

The Philippines is a much riskier nut, since it has 1) a military alliance with the United States and 2) a foreign policy team that has put most of its eggs in the brinksmanship basket, refusing to engage bilaterally with the PRC, relying/hoping that the US will deter PRC aggression and, if some kind of conflict breaks out, intervene in an effective way on the Philippines behalf.

The Philippines apparently sees it the same way, if yesterday’s seizure of a Chinese fishing boat is indeed designed to demonstrate its resolve to succor Vietnam by presenting the PRC with the unwelcome prospect of getting embroiled in two maritime disputes—with the prospect of US involvement—at once.

I don’t think the PRC will take that particular bait today.  But I would not be surprised to see the HYSY981 show up in the “West Philippine Sea” in the near future.

On the higher, long-game level, I believe the PRC leadership has decided that the United States can no longer bring anything positive to the table for the PRC as it has completely and symbolically committed to the Asia pivot and its narrative of PRC containment with President Obama’s trip to Asia.

I think it would have been prudent for President Obama to have hedged America’s bets by dropping in on Beijing, but he didn’t, sending Michelle Obama instead.  Die is cast, in other words.

The PRC response, I believe, is not to confront the United States; it is to marginalize it, by driving the Asian security narrative into regions that deeply concern its neighbors but only tangentially engage the United States.

In recent weeks, I would contend that the PRC has reversed the wedge against the US-Japan alliance.

Instead of trying to wedge the United States away from Japan and toward some kind of accommodation with PRC interests, the PRC is trying to wedge Japan away from the United States by goading/enticing Japan into an independent role that marginalizes the United States.

So we saw the PRC wait for President Obama to leave Asia, then resume its provocations in the Senkakus, while exchanging peaceable mid-level envoys with Japan…

…and ostentatiously beating up on Vietnam, which Japan has been courting as a member of Prime Minister Abe’s anti-PRC economic and security alliance.

The motive, I would guess, is to compel Japan to abandon its formal lockstep identification with the US pivot leadership in Asia (which, I would posit, Japan has honored in the breach already with its independent-minded footsie with Vietnam, Philippines, & North Korea) and emerge with its own initiative to provide Vietnam with some kind of diplomatic, economic, or military support—or else reveal the hollowness of the assurances it is offering to South East Asian countries to entice them into the Japanese camp.

Once Japan is “off the rez” so to speak, it will be forced to engage in a meaningful way, either through confrontation or negotiation, with the PRC in order to advance its Asia strategy…and the United States will see its clout diminished and have to deal with the PRC as well to get back into the game.

Given the PRC’s traditional focus on avoiding confrontation while it muscles up militarily and diplomatically, this kind of provocation and open escalation would seem to be counter-intuitive.

But I think the PRC has decided that, with the US public commitment to the pivot and encouragement to Japan to implement collective self defense, the US “honest broker” ship has sailed, the real US security role in Asia is backstopping its pivot allies, and the pivot battleline has to be challenged before it became too entrenched.

And it’s doing that by demonstrating, in relatively crude terms, that the deterrent strategy that underpins the pivot will not, well, deter the PRC and the PRC will bear—and extract—the economic costs of defying the will and preferences of the US and its Asian allies (and, in the case of Vietnam, its unlucky Asian associates).

As to why the PRC should decide to excite universal fear and loathing at this particular junction, one could spin it positively by saying that it is simply accelerating the birth of a new Asian order with a new balance of powers and the US stripped of its dominating role.

The negative interpretation is probably more persuasive.  The PRC sees a hard and ugly decade ahead, with anti-PRC administrations in power in many of the Asian capitals, keystoned by a Hillary Clinton presidency.  Best to lance the pivot boil early, before the pivot military bulk-up has completed , and while the relatively conciliatory President Obama is in power and distracted by the idea that he doesn’t want to pile a confrontation with China on top of his current problems with Russia.

The PRC’s decade of soft power is, prematurely, over, thanks to the success of the pivot in blunting the PRC’s drive to dominate the region by virtue of its economic, demographic, and implied military clout.  Its relations with its maritime neighbors will, I expect, be increasingly driven by hard power.

I think the PRC has decided to hunker down, and absorb the diplomatic, economic, and social costs of heightened fear and anger, and gamble that it can outmaneuver and outlast the hostility of the pivot nations.

It’s an ugly and dangerous gamble, especially since the first, second, and third instinct of everyone involved on the anti-PRC side will be to escalate in order to create a greater feeling of security and also bolster the deterrent narrative that the military capabilities of the US and its pivot partners is what is keeping Asia safe.

Dangerous days, indeed.

Peter Lee wrote a ground-breaking essay on the exposure of sailors on board the USS Reagan to radioactive fallout from Fukushima in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He edits China Matters.


Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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