Strategic Perceptions and Misperceptions in the South China Sea

by Aaron Jed Rabena/ Sep 20 , 2016 / Originally posted at ChinaUSFocus

In recent years, the South China Sea (SCS) has become a defining feature of East Asia’s security complex and regional order. In the pioneering book Perception and Misperception in International Politics (1976), Robert Jervis exhaustively explored the causes and consequences of misperception, the kinds of perceptual errors (psychological forces) in decision-making, and the importance of image (belief) formation in relation to intentions or inferences arising from information assimilation. Jervis’ framework of analysis could apply no better than in the case of the SCS where perceptions and misperceptions, particularly between the Philippines and China, and China and the United States, have led to periodic strategic and diplomatic conflicts.

 The highly anticipated verdict handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague last July 12 was seen by the Philippines as a “moral victory,” and by China, as a “bitter pill of humiliation.” As maritime rights, entitlements, and obligations may have been clarified, enforcement and China’s compliance to the ruling remains an open question as China has consistently maintained its 4 No’s (四个不) policy of non-participation (不参与), non-recognition (不承认), non-acceptance (不接受), and non-implementation (不执行). In fact, a few days after the PCA announcement, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) conducted aerial patrols over the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal. A few weeks thereafter, the Chinese Defense Ministry announced that it would hold a joint naval exercise with Russia in the SCS this month and also urged preparations for a “people’s war at sea” (海上人民战争).

The United States, on the other hand, had repeatedly stated that it would carry on with its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) wherever international law allows and that China should abide by the ruling of the PCA. Major powers such as Japan and Australia have also urged China to comply with the ruling. Noticeably, the involvement of non-claimant actors on the SCS issue through the exercise of military power, alliances, security partnerships, and official diplomatic statements all indicate that a post-arbitration setting goes beyond the province of legalism and is only one byproduct of the broader competitive dynamics, which encompass geopolitics, geostrategy, and machtpolitik(power politics).

The Two-Level Disputes

There are two levels of dispute in the SCS. First is the competing sovereignty claims and the jurisdictional entitlement between China and the ASEAN claimant states. Second is the United States and China major power conflict over interventionist roles and contending interpretations of FONOPS and international law. In both situations “strategic moralism” or what Helen Thompson calls the “clash of self-righteous judgments” is well at play in that facts are being countered by counter-facts and historic rights are being confuted with legal rights, which is why the international community is being exposed to competing narratives. At the same time, there are also conflicting remedial actions and ways of dispute settlement that causes diverging policy directions and dichotomous mindsets. For instance, what is stabilizing, legitimate, troubleshooting, and constructive for one is destabilizing, illegitimate, troublemaking, and destructive to the other.

Perceptions Dilemma

The mere fact that there is no clear understanding of each other’s actions and intentions in the SCS mean that there is a problem in perceptions, which gives rise to a perceptions gap or misperceptions. Misperceptions may be defined as the inaccurate, negative, flawed or misconstrued images of the other caused – or amplified – by insufficient, misleading, and excessive or sensationalized information. Policy actions and options are highly dependent upon perceptions and misperceptions. Logically, therefore, misperceptions or conflicting self-perceptions are what leads to misguided policy actions, overreactions, miscalculations, and unintended consequences.

The clash of perceptions could not be better illustrated by China’s view of its own activities and Philippine-American strategic cooperation vis-à-vis the Philippine and American shared interpretation of their security alignment and China’s increased maritime and military activities in the SCS. For China, there is no commission of acts of expansionism because it has indisputable sovereignty over the SCS since ancient times and sees its reclamation activities in the name of civilian and defensive purposes.

As with the Philippines, China views the Philippines negatively in several ways: a lackey of the United States and consistently sings the U.S. tune (一唱一和); the security alignment with the United States and Japan are meant to contain China and cause disturbance, trouble, and provocations; and the purpose of “internationalizing” the SCS issue by going to The Hague and rallying the ASEAN for a joint statement is to “name and shame” (点名批评) China. The Philippines, on the other hand, believes that its claims, rights, and interests are guaranteed under international law and that the security alignment with the United States and Japan are meant to deter Chinese aggression. The Philippines is also of the opinion that the recourse to third party arbitration is for the peaceful settlement of disputes, advancement of the rule of law, and the equalization of footing with China. As regards China, the Philippines perceives China in various hostile forms: a bully and a greedy state; the producer (cause) of demand for U.S. military presence in Asia; the expanding military power is a threat and cannot be disengaged from the SCS issue; and that the newly reclaimed islands will be for military purposes.

Escalation of Tensions and Instability

Sources of disagreement arising from competing claims of ownership and entitlement are different from the sources of tensions and instability. The sources of instability, on the backdrop of perceptions and misperceptions, are caused or preceded by actions, reactions, counteractions, tensions, and escalation of tensions. There are primarily four factors that contribute to the state of instability and increased tensions: 1) ownership, 2) nationalism, 3) security dilemma, and 4) strategic mistrust. Firstly, no one wants to lose a property based on the assumption or fact that he or she is the rightful owner. Thus, the default perception is that anything that the other party does (without consent) is unjust, unlawful, threatening, and an infringement of one’s areal jurisdiction (national sovereignty) and territorial dominion (territorial integrity), which produces a “we-they” or “us vs. them” mindset. As a consequence, the more that one party defends its claims in a louder voice and with greater force, the more that it appears antagonistic and intrusive to the other.

Secondly, national ownership cannot be divorced from nationalism. Nationalism is sacred to any nation as it signifies love of country, gallantry, and valor. Compounding ownership with nationalism aligns with what anthropologist Robert Ardrey called “territorial imperative,” that is, people and nations “will defend to the death their territory just like animals instinctively do.” As one analyst also rightfully put it, “Citizens of any country tend to react when they believe they have common cause, their beliefs are correct, and others’ beliefs are wrong.” This is not remote from what Robert Jervis described as “cognitive” or “perceptual biases.” For Jervis, people tend to hold on to perceptions of constant conditions, which make change harder to take place. This also implies believing in one’s own or those of allies’ national narrative (due to similar political values and principled stand) before or over those of others.’ Thus, misperceptions accompanied by nationalism raise people’s emotions and nationalist fervor, which leads them to demand their governments for stronger action and forceful responses. Once these compulsions go mainstream, soft, dovish, or conciliatory approaches are seen as weak, cowardly, and treasonous. As a result, advisory systems, policy deliberation patterns, and the formulation of policy choices become shaped by public and media pressure. Conversely, governments also call upon their peoples for greater national unity and unwavering domestic support.

Third, the desire of any state to defend national territory or interest promotes maneuvers to secure strategic advantage, not only in terms of weapons, but also in terms of favorable geographic locations for possible access, control, and prepositioning of strategic assets and resources. This security posturing, however, amounts to another’s insecurity due to offensive perceptions by the threatened state, which brings about a vicious cycle of security competition.

Lastlywhat further aggravates tensions and instability is the invariable property of the international system that states will always have imperfect understandings of each other’s plans and intentions, which is why there would incessantly be the structural constraints of mistrust, mutual fear, and concern for the relative distribution of capability or balance of power. For example, China is anxious over the US-led security alignments along its periphery, while the Philippines fears China defecting from mutual agreements and resorting to the use of military force to assert maritime claims.

Foreign Policy Behavior of Small States and the Logic of Balancing

Prevailing environments along with existing capabilities shape and determine the policy choices of states. To clear China’s misperceptions of the Philippines, it is important to note the conventional foreign policy behaviors of small states from the theoretical and structural points of analysis. In 1977, Robert Rothstein argued that a small state “cannot obtain security primarily by use of its own capabilities, and that it must rely fundamentally on the aid of other states, institutions, processes, or developments to do so.” In other words, small states would primarily prefer diplomatic instruments, approaches of legalism, institutionalism, and moralism instead of hard power.

However, in the case of hard power, balancing is a natural course of action. For Stephen Walt, balancing is the act of “allying with others against the prevailing threat.” Put differently, balancing enhances a balancer state’s strategic and deterrent capability by aligning with assisting states vis-à-vis threatening states. Accordingly, balancing strategies are fuelled by threat perceptions, while power asymmetry shapes threat perceptions, which is why size greatly matters in international politics. Moreover, balancing strategies are an age-old practice in geopolitics as there are innumerable examples that could be drawn from the annals of history. Not long after the outbreak of World War II (WWII) in the 1930s, the Communist Party of China (CPC) balanced with the Kuomintang (KMT) to form a united front against the overwhelming strength of the Japanese Imperial Army.

In the wake of the Cold War in the 1960s, Cuba accommodated medium- and intermediate-range Soviet ballistic missiles (SS-4 Sandal and R-14 Chusovaya) for fear of a large-scale U.S. military assault on Cuban soil. In the same period, China also leaned towards the Soviet Union as against the U.S.; and when relations between China and the Soviet Union soured, China gravitated towards the U.S. and balanced against the Soviet Union. More recently,Iran also expressly sought the diplomatic and political support of Russia and China in the P5+1 nuclear talks.

In other words, alignments and alliances mean the mutuality, commonality, and convergence of interests to achieve a sense of security. Therefore, it must also be understood that balancing and containment are two different concepts, that is, containment is offensive while balancing is defensive. Balancing strategies, however, may be exacerbated by vested interests or ulterior motives, particularly those of the assisting state. Clearly, the imbalance of power and difference in the correlation of forces between the Philippines and China exposed the Philippines’ vulnerability as a small state with limited capability and restrained freedom of action. Thus, the rationale for the Philippines to internationalize the SCS issue and seek diplomatic, political, and military support from allies and partners. As whatRobert Ross correctly said, none of China’s neighbors can unilaterally balance against China. 

Addressing Perceptions and Misperceptions

To correct each other’s blinding misperceptions on the SCS, the relevant actors at both levels of dispute should understand the rationale of each other’s actions and behavior while maintaining the proper mindset in interacting with one another.

For the Philippine side, there are three concerns that must be addressed: 1) the sources of the China threat, 2) notions on the Philippine-U.S. alliance, and 3) the distinctive and autonomous roles of the United States and the Philippines. Firstly, there are several sources of the ‘China threat’ and media sensationalism for the Philippines: the interception of small Philippine supply ships by the much larger Chinese vessels; the “water-canonning” of Filipino fishermen by the Chinese Coast Guard; strong statements issued by the Chinese foreign ministry or Chinese state-owned media; and the PLA-related mobilizations in the SCS. Essentially, the accumulation of these also means the accumulation of China threat perceptions in the Philippines. Concomitantly, the Philippines will lose face if it cannot have its fishermen fish at Scarborough Shoal and its civilian supply vessels access to resupply to currently held features in the Spratlys are impeded. On the Philippine alignment with the United States, it must be understood that in addition to balancing considerations, there is also the element that the latter adroitly persuades the former to agree to certain security arrangements. After all, international relations is also a “game of influence,” which is why the trajectory of Philippine foreign policy would always be influenced by China’s behavior and the United States’ strategic calculus.

Secondlythe Philippine-American alliance was built way back WWII and was initially forged against Japanese Imperialism just as China conducts major military parades every 10 years since the founding of the People’s Republic. By the same token, as part of the defense treaty, the United States has a treaty obligation to defend an ally under attack; and when under threat, the moral obligation to provide aid – for doing otherwise could lead to a loss of confidence on the U.S.-led network of alliances. This also explains why siding on the territorial disputes is one thing and coming to the aid of an ally under attack or threat of armed attack is another.

Thirdly, China should be informed that its issue with the United States is different from its issue with the Philippines because the Philippines and the United States are two separate and distinct sovereign state actors: the United States is a superpower while the Philippines is a small state. If China wants to send a message to the U.S., it must consider its implications to smaller powers in the region such as Vietnam and the Philippines. China should also not think that the United States is the “root of all evil,” because if such mentality would continue to hold, then the invitation for bilateral talks should be extended to the United States and not to the Philippines.

Concerning the Chinese side, the Philippines should understand China at both the macro and micro levels. At the micro level, it should be noted that China would lose face and political capital if it completely abandons the historic basis of its claims in the SCS before its domestic audience. At the macro level, it is premature to think that China is yet another conventional imperialist state or rising hegemon as China’s growing profile at virtually every metric of non-military national power allows it to be at the center of multiple partnerships and inter-regional multilateral initiatives. The Philippines must also realize that China has the right to rise, the right to increase its military budget and develop its own military (including the advancement of its own aircraft carriers and stealth fighters), and the right to conduct joint patrols and military exercises with countries like Russia as it is a sovereign state. Moreover, China’s rise should not necessarily mean that it is a threat, as no single issue should define the sum of Philippines-China relations. In a trilateral point of view, the Philippines should be considerate of China’s sensitivity towards the US; China should consider the Philippines’ sensitivity towards it; and the United States should consider China’s sensitivity towards them. 

Avoiding a Great Leap Backward in Sino-Philippine Relations

For the actors that are at the core of the disputes, it is important for misperceptions or conflicting perceptions to be turned into positive interaction so as to avoid the path towards a negative downward spiral. This could be done in two ways. First, de-escalate tensions and instability through face-saving measures of mutual accommodation. Second, advance the overall structure of Philippines-China relations through diverse bilateral management regimes. The first measure is the appropriate precondition before deciding to consult on the more sensitive sovereignty-related issues. To ease tensions, policy actions must be aimed towards mutual concessions and conflict avoidance. The simplest way this could be achieved is for both sides to functionally agree on fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal as a shared maritime priority concern since the PCA already ruled it to be a traditional fishing ground of both Filipinos and Chinese. Another is the right of access of Philippine civilian supply vessels to resupply to currently occupied features in the Spratlys.

Alongside this, both parties should also commit to non-militarization of the disputed areas while refraining from using confrontational rhetoric and not force each other’s red lines in public so as to avoid either party from losing face. Secondlythe Philippines and China must work towards the development of the overall state of bilateral relations in line with the realization of the Community of Common Destiny or the structuring of national interests with the regional public goods of peace, prosperity, stability, and harmony. The two countries may likewise adopt formal and informal bilateral mechanisms from the already existing ones such as: the China-Malaysia Strategic Consultation Meetings, China-Vietnam Steering Committee for Bilateral Cooperation, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, among others. Additionally, both countries could also establish a maritime security framework that would strengthen maritime partnership through the sustainable management of fisheries, protection of the marine ecosystem, common management of freedom and safety navigation, and the coordination of maritime security operations. It should be noted, however, that dialogues and mechanisms are not enough if the bilateral consensus agreed upon by both parties will not be sustained by good faith and lasting commitments.

(This piece was adapted from his presentation at the Bilateral Symposium and Dialogue “Beyond Conflict: The Future of China-Philippines Relations” held in Manila last July. The views expressed herein are the author’s own and do not reflect those of his affiliation. )

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