Ep. 37: Beyond South China Sea tensions, part one: The Tinderbox

The episode is broken up into three parts: how did it all begin?; what's in it for Beijing?; and where to go and what to know from here.

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This week on the program: 

  • We explore the U.S.-China relationship beginning with tensions in and around the South China Sea.

This episode is broken up into three parts: 

  1. How did all this begin? (at the 2:58 mark)
  2. What's in it for Beijing? (11:16)
  3. Where to go and what to know from here (24:28)

Our guests include Samantha Hoffman of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute; Elsa Kania of the Center for a New American Security; Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Andrew Wilson of the U.S. Naval War College (not speaking on behalf of the Navy or the Defense Department); and Pamela Crossley of Dartmouth University. Special thanks to Paulina Glass, Katie Bo Williams and Marcus Weisgerber. Music by Terry Devine-King, via AudioNetwork.com.

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Below is a transcription of this week's episode:

As the White House’s Syrian war envoy Ambassador Jim Jeffrey reminded us in November, the South China Sea — like Syria and the Korean peninsula — is a place where war between great powers could ignite very quickly. The great powers in this case are the U.S. and China. But this is about much more than those two countries.

On the map, the South China Sea is bordered by China to the west, Vietnam to the southwest, Malaysia to the south and the Philippines to the east.

  • There are seven different countries with competing claims in this sea.
  • One-third of the world’s trade moves through this sea.
  • That’s more than $3 trillion in annual goods.

Those last two points alone are why the U.S. Navy cares about the South China Sea, according to its chief of naval operations Adm. John Richardson. That’s what he told reporters last Friday at the Pentagon. And we’ll hear a bit from that visit a little later.

But that first data point I mentioned — the seven different countries with competing claims in the sea — that’s why what happens in the South China Sea concerns far more than just the two most powerful militaries there — China and the United States.

So we’re going to explore those concerns — the risks, the incentives, the history, the future and even the future of China’s history — with the help of a half dozen scholars and experts in this podcast mini-series that will look beyond South China Sea tensions.

This episode’s title: The tinderbox.  

Three questions will be our guide today. The first: How did all this begin? That’s to say, is there even a start point for these tensions? The second: What’s in it for China? And in the third section we’ll consider the South China Sea as part of a much larger strategy from Beijing on the world stage — a strategy that’s less complex and confrontational than you may have been led to believe. The question there: Why now, in the second decade of the 21st century, is China the number one threat to America, according to the White House’s top intelligence official and echoed in a recent Pentagon intelligence report?

Chapter one

How did tensions in the South China Sea begin?

Why is it that this is audio you might hear if you fly a U.S. Navy aircraft over the South China Sea as this conversation proceeded in May 2015:

PLAN: “This is the Chinese Navy, this is the Chinese Navy, this is the Chinese Navy [unintelligible] guy. Please go away quickly in order to [unintelligible].”

USAF: “I am a United States military aircraft conducting lawful military activities outside national airspace. I am operating with due regard as required under international law.”

Tensions in the South China Sea have been growing for about a decade now. That’s the quick line on when. The how played out in the years after 2008, when Chinese engineers began dredging up enough sand from the bottom of the sea for more than half a dozen artificial islands in a shallow southeastern region of the South China Sea called the Spratly Islands.

The reasoning Chinese officials and state media outlets provided, and really worked to sell especially after all the island-building had already begun: something it calls the Nine Dash Line.

And at the southernmost point of this line lies one of the more odd details in the story of South China Sea tensions. Odd because it concerns a place that really doesn’t even exist. It’s called the James Shoal. And I’m no sailor, so forgive me, but I didn’t know what a shoal was. Here’s Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He directs the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative which tracks virtually all aspects of the South China Sea for CSIS. Which means he knows what a shoal is.

GP: “It is an underwater sandbar, an underwater feature. It is a hazard to navigation so it’s going to be marked on every sailing chart.”

But most importantly to us today, the James shoal is—

GP: “...the southernmost part of Chinese territory, if you ask the average schoolchild in China… James shoal is I think for everybody not in China, indicative of all that is wrong with the Chinese historical narrative surrounding South China Sea claims.”


The James Shoal — and an entire sweep of territorial claims inside what Chinese officials call the 9 Dash Line — is in fact the product of a mistake in translation. That happened way back in 1937 when Chinese officials first codified what’s now known as the 9 Dash Line while the colonialist French were snatching up islands in the area. Here’s Bill Hayton of the London-based Chatham House think tank, speaking Greg’s colleague Bonnie Glaser back in May.

BH: “So what happened was that the a geography professor and a government committee made a series of translation mistakes and they thought that ‘shoal’ meant like a sandbank and they thought it was an island and they became, in their eyes, an island. And they drew the line around it, but actually there’s nothing there. And so to this day Chinese ships when they’re on their way to, say, anti-piracy in Somalia will stop at this sort of sea and throw a concrete block over the side and say that this is Chinese territory but there’s no territory there.”

GP: “So you have these incidents where it’s not just James Shoal, there are a number — Macclesfield Bank, for instance, which is the heart of what the Chinese call the Zhongsha archipelago, the middle of their four island archipelagos, is entirely underwater, 100 feet I think in some parts. James Shoal is about 60 feet underwater. It was marked down on a map, and mistranslated as an island. The water rights in those waters belong to the nearby coastal state of Malaysia. And they’ve got these you know Chinese officials that come in and have to keep up a historical facade.”

How so?

GP: “1909 the French claim the Paracels. 1933 they claim part of the Spratlys; they then extend that to claim all of the Spratlys. All of the Chinese claims developed as direct responses to foreign claims. There is no evidence that Chinese officials — I’m not saying Chinese fishermen, they’re certainly operating just like their counterparts in the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam are operating in the South China Sea — Chinese officialdom didn’t know that Paracels or Spratlys existed until the French made a claim to them. At least there is no documentation When the French claimed the Spratlys in 1933, we have U.S. diplomatic cables saying, ‘Hey, the Chinese consuls here in Manila came to us asking for maps that show where the Spratlys are because they have no idea what islands the French just claimed.’ And so to bring this back to James Shoal… It is listed as the southernmost piece of Chinese territory because what happened is in the wake of these claims by the French and counterclaims by the Chinese, the Chinese needed to come up with a map. They needed to show that they knew what they were talking about. And so in 1937, you had the codification of what’s called the 9 Dash Line — which had started previously. Earlier work on getting Chinese cartographers in southern China at the behest of provincial authorities in southern China to come up with maps showing China’s claims. And do that because they had no Coast Guard, they had no surveys; there was no record they could pull up because as I said, the Chinese hadn’t administered these islands before. They just took mainly British but other foreign admiralty charts, naval charts, sailing directions, and transcribed them. And then drew a line around all of the islands, which became — it was originally 11, now it’s nine dashes — that everything within those lines are our claim.”

And an increasingly big sticking point — here going into decade three of the 21st century: It’s become increasingly difficult to discuss any sort compromise with Chinese leaders. Almost as if U.S. officials are relearning how stubborn it is to negotiate with Communist party officials.  

Greg pinpoints some of this difficulty on “a problematic historical revisionism, where for the southeast Asians they can’t even sit down at the table and have a reasonable discussion about these things when Chinese counterparts are throwing out these kind of historical fallacies — and insisting that they are indisputable. That to provide any counterfactuals kills conversation to begin with. They’re not even going to consider the fact that you know there are these obvious errors in their claim that indicate how weak it is… I have seen some evidence that Vietnamese authorities at one time or another into the 19th century, perhaps the 18th century, were aware of the existence of the Paracels, might have done some surveys, sent people out to you know set up a building or something. Whether or not that qualifies as occupation, as ‘effective administration,’ which usually under international law to have the superior argument in a territorial dispute, it is about who had effective, continuous and undisputed administration. I think most courts would probably argue that at the time these claims starting being made, which would be you know arguably the end of the 19th century — now the Vietnamese might dispute that; in the case of the Paracels, like I said. But in the Spratlys, I see no evidence that anybody did anything until the turn of the last century. At that point they were probably what would be called ‘terra nullius,’ unclaimed land. Sure, fishermen might have known where they are. They might have been used for storm shelter; but nobody had ever lived on them in the entirety of human history. And if we can you know migrate out to the farthest reaches of the Pacific islands, it seems unlikely that people skipped over some perfectly good islands.”

BW: “Which is interesting given Easter Island’s story.”

GP: “Sure. Which is basically what the arbitral award in the Philippine-China case said, which is — under international law, only islands capable of sustaining human habitation or independent economic life generate maritime entitlements to an exclusive economic zone, and the fisheries and oil and gas rights that come with it. The court ruled that none of the islands generate those rights because they are not inhabitable. And their argument was somewhat simple, elegant. They said, ‘It’s never been inhabited, and therefore it is likely uninhabitable.’ It is unlikely that in the heart of Asia, you know, perfectly good islands went uninhabited unless it’s because you can’t live on them — without outside supply.”

Chapter 2

So what’s in it for China? Why build in the South China Sea? Experts we spoke to traced the motivation back to two possible events in the 1990s.

AW: “One major turning point for China on the military front was the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis when the United States sent two carrier battle groups then, strike groups now, to the waters off Taiwan. And Beijing found out about it on CNN.”

That’s Professor Andrew Wilson, who teaches about China strategy and Asia-Pacific Studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.

AW: “So the United States was able to respond quickly, forcefully, and in a surprising manner that kind of threw a wrench in the works of the demonstration exercise, the deterrence, political influence campaign that China was trying to pull with Taiwan at the point. And so that presented a huge set of political, strategic and operational problems for China. And the PLA for the past 23 years has been set on kind of proposing counter problems for the ease and speed of the deployment of U.S. military assets into China’s front yard.

“So what they’ve done you know in the past 22 years is really try to problematize or complicate that sort of thing we took for granted — the ease of being able to roll aircraft carriers up into anybody’s front yard.”

EK: “And secondly, since it’s coming up on the 20th anniversary of this incident, I’d also point to 1999. In particular May 1999 with the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.”

That’s Elsa Kania, with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

EK: “Which Chinese leaders seemingly to this day have never believed was truly accidental in part because they saw the U.S. military as so powerful and so capable in its precision weapons that they seemingly saw it as deliberate, or at least that is the consistent claim and the message presented in Chinese propaganda. And a highly secretive armaments development program was launched named for the month and the year in which that incident took place — the 995 program, May 1999 — that has resulted in the development of a lot of what are today characterized as anti-access, area denial capabilities.”

BW: “That refers to like an arsenal of rockets and missiles that could knock out ships in a given space of the ocean?”

EK: “A range of asymmetric capabilities. So Jiang Zemin is known to have said in the 90s, ‘Whatever the enemy is fearful of, that is what we must develop.’”

So China first answered those two 90s incidents with the pursuit of new weapons. Or as Professor Wilson puts it:  

AW: “Part of the fix has been technological; part of the fix has been just numerical. Part of the fix is basic physics — submarines when they’re either running on batteries or running on quiet nuclear engines, are really hard to find. And they just have to be in the right place at the right time to score a pretty low-cost hit, or at least threaten a low-cost hit on a high value asset like an aircraft carrier… So it’s completely understandable that the Chinese are looking at this body of water as a place to exercise. But they’ve also talked themselves into this idea that it’s territory of tremendous, not just sort of intrinsic value, but spiritual value to the Chinese nation.”

GP: “I think it was always entirely predictable and understood that the Chinese were going to develop a blue water navy. That as China rose, as its economy skyrocketed after the late 70s, eventually they were going to become a global military power. The pace at which that acceleration has happened over say the last 20 years I think has been surprising given the focus that you’ve had and the amount of resources the state has directed toward boosting external capacities — whether navy, the coast guard, the merchant fleets, the maritime militia, as well as air assets. You know the Chinese have invested an enormous amount of state capital into this project in a way that no other country ever has in history, at least not for such a sustained period of peace time.”  

And that period of peacetime began slipping away about 2009 or so.

GP: “That’s when you had the 9 Dash Line submitted as a note verbale to the UN, the first time it had really been formally submitted to an international body as a demarcation of China’s claim. And then the data tells us that number of clashes and incidents involving the Chinese started to rise rapidly in 2010.”

To my mind, the U.S.-China tensions really seemed to rise in 2012. I hadn’t followed any of these things that closely then. But Greg tells me why I wasn’t alone in that feeling.

GP: “The reason people tag it here in the U.S. to 2012 is because that’s when the Chinese seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines. And it really became an issue we couldn’t avoid. So what happened was in the spring of 2012, the Philippines detected Chinese fishing vessels poaching at Scarborough Shoal — which had happened for decades. Scarborough Shoal is about 150 nautical miles to the west of the Philippines, so well within what international law would specify is the Philippine exclusive economic zone. It had for decades been administered by the Philippines, treated as Filipino, the U.S. saw it as Philippine. You know there are documents from the 1930s of U.S. secretaries of state and what not declaring the Scarborough Shoal was U.S. territory transferred to us from Spain and then given to the Philippines. We paid the Filipinos rent to use it as a bombing range in the 70s and 80s. So it’s not as if we can now pretend all of a sudden that we’re neutral. Because the Filipinos won’t deny that traditionally Chinese and Vietnamese fisherman have also occasionally used it. The crux is that it’s under Philippine jurisdiction. So it is Manila who gets to decide how you can fish there, and decide what qualifies as poaching and administer those issues. And so there has been a long history of Philippine government vessels interdicting Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen. What changed is that all of a sudden in 2012 China felt big enough to do something about it. And so the Philippines arrested these Chinese fishermen who were pulling up clams and taking in endangered species like sea turtles and the like. They sent their naval flag ship, which is a decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutter, because it was the closest ship on station. The Chinese used that as an excuse to respond with their own Coast Guard and fisheries bureau ships, and you basically had a monthslong standoff where the Philippines had one vessel inside the shoal, with this Chinese fishing boat that they tried to interdict; the Chinese had their own vessels around it. It expanded rapidly. At one point the Chinese had dozens of boats to the Philippine handful. Eventually after about three months, the U.S. negotiated — or thought it negotiated — a drawdown. So the idea was that both parties ahead of an incoming storm would withdraw from the shoal, return things to the status  quo ante, that would be the end of it. The Filipinos did withdraw. The Chinese temporarily pulled out ahead of the storm, came back and have never left. And so for the last seven years they have been in de facto control of this Philippine-claimed shoal. They are allowing Philippine fishing within certain bounds; for instance, the Filipinos aren’t allowed to come within the lagoon, but they can fish around it. But it’s very clearly held by the Chinese. And that’s when things started to rise out of the Southeast Asia niche and become a problem for U.S. policy. It’s also what got the Philippines to file their arbitration case against the Chinese, which is what in turn helped convince the Chinese that it was time to start building artificial islands."

So what happened after that 2016 ruling? Has anything really changed in China’s behavior, or about the Philippines’ main gripe about being essentially bullied out of the Scarborough Shoal?  

GP: “In 2016 China got the best gift I can imagine in the form of Rodrigo Duterte being elected President of the Philippines. So and it was literally two weeks before the ruling from the arbitral tribunal at the Hague. China had spent years before that trying to come up with ways to discredit the arbitral proceeding, make sure that it wasn’t going to get beat up too bad in the international community, and I think China thought that they’d largely failed. Or at least that some leaders in China were worried that they were going to get beat up a lot, that they were going to be made into an international pariah, that it was going to negatively affect their ability to be seen as a world leader — that didn’t happen because the Philippines stopped talking about it. On the day before the ruling, AMTI was keeping track of public statements issued by every country in the world with regard to the ruling, and you had I think over 50 had said that they were going to hold China to account, that they thought the ruling would be legally binding, they expected Beijing to comply — including every member of the European Union, the U.S., partners in Asia. Since the ruling came out, only eight countries have reiterated that statement. Largely because the country that brought the case, the victor in the case, stopped asking for support. And so Beijing was entirely let off the hook as far as international pressure. China was also very quick to seize that opportunity. They opened negotiations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a code of conduct, which I think everybody knows isn’t going anywhere quick. But it created the perception that the Chinese were willing to play nice. But the Chinese were very good at rewarding Duterte just enough to sell the narrative that what he was doing worked — which is Duterte came into office; his predisposition is that the Americans are untrustworthy, they won’t actually fight and die for Filipinos; we have no choice in the South China Sea but slaughter or surrender. And he says this constantly every time somebody in the Philippines says, ‘Why don’t you stand up for us? You know, complain about this thing the Chinese did, or that thing.’ His answer is always the same: ‘What do you want me to do — send our troops? We’ll be slaughtered.’ The Chinese fed that narrative. They said, ‘You’re right. The Americans are not going to back you up. You know that. I know that. Ignore what Washington says. Let’s negotiate.’

"And so if you’re in the Philippines and you are in agreement with that line of thinking, then like it or not, your two options are let the Chinese take what you have, or negotiate what you have. And at least if you negotiate maybe you can get better terms. Not everybody in the Philippines believes that. In fact, polling suggests that large majorities disagree with the government’s current policy on the South China Sea. But it’s clearly where the government has taken the Philippines. It’s also isolated others in Southeast Asia who would like to take a stronger position, especially the Vietnamese who have been left out on a limb with nobody backing them now. And Washington hasn’t helped matters. It’s not really that anything about U.S. policy has changed; in fact, problematically, nothing about U.S. policy has changed. So U.S. policy wasn’t working during the Obama administration, and the Trump administration has really just doubled down — freedom of navigation operations and money for capacity building as if a few million dollars to the Philippine coast guard is gonna turn them into a force capable of standing up to the Chinese. So we’ve been doing the exactly same thing a little more frequently; so I’ll give them that. You know they do more FONOPs, but FONOPs weren’t working before. But paired with that is we have let it fall completely off the diplomatic agenda. So while the Philippines stopped talking about it and let, say, the Europeans off the hook, we are responsible for the fact that the Americans stopped talking about it — at least in the way we did before. It still comes up in joint statements and occasionally in speeches. But it’s buried way down there below our beef about trade deficits and North Korea. Now I’m not saying that Southeast Asians aren’t willing to help on North Korea; but it’s not their top concern. The South China Sea is their top concern, and it’s not on the top of our talking points.”

Chapter 3

Where do we go from here, whether we’re talking about advice to senior government leaders all the way down to ordinary citizens?

A number of U.S. military folks I spoke to told me they don’t think China really wants a confrontation with the U.S. That China is really more about the appearance of confrontation. And that’s actually a view that was echoed by a Chinese diplomat last year, according to Professor Wilson.

AW: “I was at a Chinese think tank last Summer and one of our interlocutors said that — and he was talking about it in the context of Xi Jinping's being able to be president for life — and he says one of the reasons that that is essential now is that China is afraid of two traps. One is the middle income trap, that China will get old before it gets rich. It might run into a similar crunch to Japan but run into you know with ten times the population of Japan when it hit its middle income trap. And Japan was also much wealthier when it got old than China will likely be. The other trap was the Thucydides Trap.”

The Thucydides Trap refers to the legend of Athens versus Sparta — the ancient Greek story of a rising power versus a ruling power. The two states went to war, Sparta won, but both states were ultimately sunk in the effort. Thucydides Trap is the power dynamic neither state seemed to be able to escape in the end. And it’s a concept repopularized in the 2017 book from Graham Allison of Harvard University. The title: Destined for War.

Now back to Professor Wilson and the Chinese diplomat in 2018.  

“He said this explicitly that the idea that China does not want to get pulled into a major system war, especially if it escalates out of a relatively minor clash — be it in the South China Sea or the East China Sea. And I find that heartening myself… The Chinese have read ‘Destined for War’ because they think we read it. And they think that it is somewhat authoritative or at least highly influential when it comes to thinking about the way the U.S. views the relationship with China. That there is this looming major system conflict.”

BW: “That’s kind of what looms over this entire discussion, the series of discussions that I’ve had. I’m sort of attempting to sort of demystify it. Now that’s a wariness from this fellow. Was there much more that he was able to kind of go on at greater length about?”

AW: “Yeah in that he of course was a diplomat, so perhaps he was being diplomatic or speaking for the diplomatic community in the sense that wanting to avoid a major system war is absolutely in China’s best interest because it’s — while it’s important for China to be able to stand up, and to show that it defends issues like Chinese territorial integrity, sovereignty, sovereign claims, historical claims whatever you might think about the validity of those historical claims, that it is not in fact itching for war. It is not doing what it’s doing in the South China Sea because it wants war with the United States; it wants to look strong, it wants to look like the party and military are standing up for Chinese interests. But it’s not eager to have that erupt into a war, because the costs of war would be incredibly high. And would turn back the clock of China’s remarkable progress over the last 40 years, but also do so at a time when China has to cash in as many chips as it possibly can in terms of progress and development so that it can absorb the demographic crisis it’s gonna confront farther down the road.”

SH: “I think the number one thing that we should be concerned about is it’s not rising China, it’s the party.”

That’s Dr. Samantha Hoffman, an analyst in Chinese security and politics with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. We’ll be hearing more from her in the next episode as well.

SH: “And it’s not China, it’s not the Chinese people — it’s the party and how they define who the Chinese people are and what the Chinese people can do and what Chinese culture is. And it’s the idea that the party’s number one goal, both internationally and domestically is its own political power.”

That’s a point Wilson echoes, too.

AW: “As I like to say, the top three priorities of the People’s Liberation Army are to keep the Chinese Communist Party in power. That’s one. Number two is to keep the Chinese Communist Party in power. And number three is to keep the Chinese Communist Party in power.”

SH: “It is, I guess it is an ideological issue. But we’re talking about a party who regularly violates human rights...”

SH: “...a party that right now has you know anywhere between 800,000 and 2 million Uighurs in prison because of their ethnic and religious identity. Well they don’t even have to necessarily identify as Muslim to be there. They just could have been, uhm, looked at somebody in the wrong way. If you’re talking about the party’s number one goal is to ensure its political security, that means it’s always constantly expanding its power in order to protect its power. And so we need to be thinking about issues related to Chinese security in a more sort of holistic way. Where we’re thinking about domestic politics a lot more than we have in the past, and thinking about framing things in the way that the party frames them.”

We’re going to explore those points about the party — the Chinese Communist party — a bit more in episode two of our series.

But before we end today, we’re going to take Sam’s advice —  “framing things in the way that the party frames them” — and look at an element of China’s soft power: the movies.

In particular: the 2018 action film Operation Red Sea. I bring this up not because I like these kind of action and war movies. I bring it up because the message of this movie — based on the Chinese navy’s mission in 2015 to rescue its citizens from Yemen once it became clear war had swept over the country that March.

Here’s an English trailer of the film.

It’s sort of like America’s “Act of Valor” movie released less than a year after the bin Laden raid in Pakistan.

But “Operation Red Sea”’s message to the world is at once more constrained, and with its action and gore — believe it or not — a bit more in your face than “Act of Valor.” Not that it’s a competition; but it can appear that way.

Red Sea concerns China’s Navy SEAL equivalent. And what’s maybe most interesting about this movie for our purposes is what happens at the end. The film fades to black and you think the credits are about to roll.

Instead, we’re shown about seven Chinese navy warships in the sea the caption tells us its — surprise surprise — the South China Sea. In front of the warships: three other advanced warships with no flags or markings. But the message is clear enough.

EK: “So I suppose I would describe this genre of action movies more as propaganda aimed at an internal audience.”

Elka Kania again.

EK: “The common theme across these movies is that the Chinese military is powerful and highly capable, and also, as it happens, global in its reach and operations and defending Chinese interests and Chinese nationals, as in the evacuation operation that that depicts. I think that’s a reasonably accurate representation of how the Chinese military wants to be seen and the ambitions they are seeking to live up to as Xi Jinping has articulated the objective of the PLA becoming a world-class military by mid-century.”

AW: “Yeah Red Sea is really interesting because whoever made it had clearly watched ‘Blackhawk Down’ about 50 times… It was ‘Blackhawk Down’ meets Hong Kong gangster ultraviolence movies like Chow Yun Fat got his start in. And then there’s this whole — and you can see this in the Sino-Japanese war soap operas that fill the Chinese air waves now — this sort of recurring memes of Chinese soldiers in battle and the way they communicate with each other and the way they face death together. So yeah it was a really fascinating film and I kind of insist that my students watch it.”

BW: “Well I’m just now looking over my notes I took while watching that film and I’ve got ‘disgusting guts’ three times; ‘guts are gross’ another time. But all these other bullets that I’ve got, they’re much more nuanced. One of the things that they had said, the Chinese soldiers, is ‘We saved their lives but not their homes,’ as they’re in this fictional country of Yemen. And they said ‘This country of theirs is in such a mess, at most we complete our mission and that’s it.’ I just found it kind of interesting those sort of projected words versus you know America’s more kind of nation-building narrative over the past couple decades abroad. And you know one of the very first people that’s rescued in this movie ‘Operation Red Sea’ is an American in a botched suicide car bomb. So yeah, there’s a lot going on with this film. That’s true. But I still find it intriguing and fascinating from a soft power perspective.”

AW: “Yeah the farther away you get from China’s immediate neighborhood, the better neighbor China becomes. So in the greater Middle East, China is sort of a good global citizen. I mean it’s doing the counter-piracy operations; it was out the rescuing its nationals. And then in the Aden evacuation, they also rescued a bunch of non-Chinese working for Chinese firms, but they were non-Chinese nationals. So you know the Chinese are also I mean maybe you see there in that line that ‘We saved their lives but not their homes’ that the Chinese are deeply conflicted about the Middle East, and see it as kind of a graveyard of empires, and really don’t want to get sucked into being the next British empire or the next American empire that’s ground down in such a problematic region.”

GP: “So yeah I think everybody kind of knew that eventually in the 21st century we were going to deal with the situation of relative parity between the U.S. and China. I don’t think most people thought it was gonna come quite as soon as its projected to. And to be clear, the Chinese navy is not a match for the U.S. Navy. What the Chinese have are more assets in raw numbers than the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has. The U.S. could always in some future shift assets in, say, the [Bahrain-based] 5th Fleet. Right now in the Pacific, the Chinese have more vessels than the U.S. Navy does. The U.S. Navy’s vessels tend to be larger and better equipped and they certainly train a lot more and have actually been used in conflict. The Chinese are largely untested. The other thing the U.S. has that the Chinese don’t, though, is an alliance system that serves as a force multiplier. So ask yourself: Do the Chinese have more ships in raw numbers than the U.S. does? Sure. Do the Chinese have more ships than the U.S. and the Japanese JMSDF and the Australian navy, and potentially other partners farther afield? No, absolutely not. Nor do they have anywhere — with the exception of Djibouti — that they can stop and refit anything. They don’t have a global network to allow a blue water navy to operate.”

And the big challenge moving forward for the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea?

AW: “So to my mind the daunting technological issue is just the numbers of capable Chinese submarines they they’re able to field in waters close to home. They’re not the greatest submarines on the planet, but they don’t have to be. They have to be able to operate within you know a few hundred miles of the Chinese coast. The South China Sea is a good training ground for submarine operations. It’s significantly more open than the waters off China’s other two major naval centers of concentration, the North Sea Fleet or the East Sea Fleet. North Sea Fleet being sort of opposite the Korean peninsula, sort of hemmed in there by the Korean peninsula and by Japan. And then the East Sea Fleet kind of hemmed in by Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the United States, of course. Whereas the South China Sea is a little bit more of a politically open area. And I’m not an expert on this, but my Navy friends who are say its hydrographically and terrain-wise it’s kind of a better place to learn how to use a modern navy. ”

And his advice for how to move ahead in this politically open area? Keep up the freedom of navigation operations — called FONOPs. Pretty much the very thing that China seemed to flag at the end of “Operation Red Sea.”

AW: “While many in China will be unpersuaded by this, freedom of navigation operations is just something the U.S. Navy does. It does them all over the world in waters claimed or operated in by potential strategic competitors like China. You know straight up foes, as you might say North Korea and Iran are, but also in Japanese waters, in Indian waters. I think even in Canadian waters. So these are not things that are by their very nature strategic or political, but they’ve become incredibly political and viewed as part of the U.S. strategy to contain or roll back China. Some countries would like to the United States be more aggressive politically and strategically with freedom of navigation operations, which I think we have rightly tried to not get roped into. I think we just need to continue to do these things because that’s just what the U.S. Navy does. It’s just part of their portfolio.”

And the U.S. Navy’s position?

CNO: “I think that in general there’s a growing sense that this is a matter of international law.”

That’s the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson speaking to reporters last week at the Pentagon. Richardson just returned from visit in late January with Chinese officials. Asked about those meetings, here’s what he said this week at the Atlantic Council:

CNO: “The theme of our visit was, I would say in a word, consistency. And consistency in a number of areas. One, our actions have to be consistent with our words, right? So with respect to the South China Sea, President Xi made a statement that he would not militarize those features in the South China Sea, and yet we see military systems emerging on the — you know, very sophisticated military systems. So, we made it clear that this inconsistency and the militarization of those islands is a destabilizing factor for the world really, not just for the region, but for the world.”

And his path forward?

CNO: “We need to make sure that the United States has consistently been present in the South China Sea. And this goes to our economic prosperity, right? And the role of the Navy in terms of protecting and enhancing our economic dimension of military power. And so we’re not gonna leave, right? We have just too many national interests in that body of water — about a third of the world’s trade goes through that.”

When asked if the Chinese laid out any sort of action they may have viewed as a sign of escalation in the South China Sea, here’s what Richardson told reporters at the Pentagon last Friday.  

CNO: “No they really didn’t point out anything like that. It was a very frank discussion, so it was clear where we had disagreements in terms of how we do the South China Sea. They were clear about they’ve got a vision for Taiwan and there was no kind of flinching from having that honest discussion. Which I think is productive, right? We wanna make sure that these discussions lead to greater understanding of each side and we only do that by being as honest as we can.”

GP: “The reason that this matters to the U.S. fundamentally is this is the first test case of how a risen China will behave on the world stage.”

That’s Greg Poling again.

GP: “We can live with all the other frictions. We can argue about cyber theft, and argue about economics, and we can hyperventilate about North Korea. But none of that is gonna fundamentally determine whether or not the project that the international community started a century ago is gonna continue. What’s gonna determine that is whether or not China will abide by it. That’s the question. And this is the first case in which the Chinese are clearly walking away from the system. Either we accept that or we don’t. If we accept it, we’re gonna live in a very different world in the next couple of decades. And if we don’t, I do think the Chinese can be dragged back to the table. Beijing cares about its reputation; it responds to international pressure; the Chinese are not uniquely immune to being named and shamed. Just so far they’ve ridden roughshod over international law in the South China Sea and they’ve paid very little price for it. The question is are we willing to make them pay a price.”

Next episode, we’ll take a look what’s most important to China’s leaders — and how Communist party officials seem to believe one key to the future might just lie in how we all view the past. Here’s Pamela Crossley, professor of Chinese history at Dartmouth.

PC: “Xi is a bit different from earlier leaders of China in the way that he uses history because he wants to focus so intensely on the history of the Qing empire. This is complicated because Qing vastly enlarged its territories in comparison to the Ming before it, and the enlargement was due to conquest. This is the part that Xi doesn’t want to be incorporated into the story.”

That’s in part two of our look Beyond South China Sea tensions. Special thanks this episode to Samantha Hoffman, Elsa Kania, Greg Poling, Andrew Wilson, Pamela Crossley, Paulina Glass, Katie Bo Williams and Marcus Weisgerber. And thanks for listening.