Don’t Push China Too Hard After SCS Ruling 

By SYDNEY J. FREEDBERG JR./ July 11, 2016/

WASHINGTON: “To a surrounded enemy, you must leave a way of escape,” Sun Tzu wrote 2,500 years ago. It’s a stratagem – often called the “golden bridge” – that the US and its allies would do well to remember tomorrow morning, when a UN tribunal ruling on disputes in the South China Sea will almost certainly deliver China a legal and political defeat. Chinese nationalists will stridently demand retaliation.  We need to give Xi Jinping room to deescalate instead without losing face.

“How China reacts in the near term is going to depend in part on what actions the US and the Philippines take,” said Bonnie Glaser, China scholar at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “The US should strike a balance between calling on China to comply with the ruling and putting pressure on it to do so, while at the same time leaving China diplomatic space…to wriggle out of the corner it has put itself in.”

The US should continue military patrols in the region, including Freedom Of Navigation Operations through disputed waters, “but they don’t have to be publicly announced,” Glaser said. That stands in stark contrast to several recent, high-profile FONOPs much discussed in the media and in Congress.

Timing matters too, said Jeffrey Hornung, a fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA. “Of course you’re going to want to enforce the claim at some point,” he said, “but if they ruling comes out 0500 Eastern time tomorrow and they leave port at 0600, then we’re jumping the gun a little bit.”

“The best the US can do is really not gloat (and) thump its chest,” said Hornung.

No matter how nicely the US asks, no one expects Beijing to roll over and comply with the Hague tribunal’s ruling: The Chinese government has already promised not to. The crucial question is how it expresses its defiance: Will it limit its response to hostile rhetoric or violate the ruling with military action? In the worst case, China would build bases on the disputed Scarborough Shoal just off the Philippines, potentially leading to at-sea shoving matches between Chinese dredgers and Philippine vessels. In the best case, Beijing would realize it’s in a hole in Southeast Asia, having alienated much of the region with its aggressive actions, and it needs to stop digging.

So if the US and the Philippines speak softly to China – keeping the big stick of US seapower in the background – they might just give Xi the political wiggle room to choose the more peaceful path. Crow too loudly about the tribunal victory, this theory goes, and incensed Chinese nationalists might force the Beijing government to escalate. Read more…


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