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The U.S. has dialed up the rhetoric on Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea

The verbal escalation of this dispute may make it harder to find offramps

- July 24, 2020

Two U.S. aircraft carriers deployed to the South China Sea last week and Australian, Japanese and U.S. ships are holding joint exercises in the Philippine Sea. Satellite images show Beijing has now stationed eight warplanes in the Paracels Islands. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced China’s use of “intimidation” in the South China Sea, unequivocally rejecting multiple Chinese maritime claims as illegal.

Choppy diplomacy and competing territorial claims have long been a feature of the South China Sea, an area of around 1.4 million square miles stretching from Taiwan to Borneo. But the big difference in the U.S. statement is less in substance than rhetoric — and here’s why that matters to the South China Sea dispute.

The U.S. just dialed up the rhetoric even more

Various news outlets described Pompeo’s statement as “a direct challenge,” “pick[ing] a fight” and an “an official policy shift to clamp down on Beijing’s activity.” But did U.S. policy actually change? As several analysts have pointed out, Pompeo officially and explicitly labeled certain specific Chinese claims as illegal.

That’s not particularly earth-shattering — prior U.S. positions already logically implied such a stance, even if it had not previously been explicitly specified in detail. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell called this announcement a matter of “housekeeping.” Importantly, the United States still did not take sides with any party in the various sovereignty disputes over land features (i.e., those above water at high tide) in the South China Sea.

But Pompeo’s statement does further ramp up the rhetoric against the backdrop of an escalating U.S.-China rift. The intense language in the statement is a sharp change from Obama-era statements. The statement accused China of “bullying,” seeking to “replace international law with ‘might makes right,’” and of having a “predatory world view.” Pompeo hailed global opposition to attempts by “Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.” In subsequent remarks, Stilwell states “Beijing wants dominion for itself. …. Beijing threatens the existing order that has given Asia decades of prosperity.”

Rhetoric can up the stakes and emotional salience of a dispute

Disagreeing over maritime rights or legal interpretations and advocating peaceful resolution is one thing — portraying oneself as standing up to a predatory “bully” in defense of the international order is another matter entirely. The points of dispute may be the same, but the salience and stakes involved are not.

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Crucially, the U.S. rhetoric of the past week seems to even further recast concrete disagreements over specific South China Sea disputes into grander, more abstract and more emotionally laden intangible stakes. At question, it seems, are the rules-based international order, fair play and whether to let bullies take whatever they want. The latter, in particular, is a moral framing that invites indignation and outrage.

What’s the potential fallout, then? Scholars of territorial conflicts have found that intangible stakes such as symbolic value and reputational concerns are more likely to render disputes intractable. Scholars of international rivalries have also argued increasing intangible stakes make relations more conflicted. International relations scholar John Vasquez, for instance, notes, “The more tangible an issue, the greater the likelihood of eventual resolution, while the more intangible, the more contentious and conflict prone.”

My research explores how ballooning symbolic stakes and emotional concerns within a dispute can fuel tensions between countries. Steps in this direction can inflate a dispute’s significance, give impetus to escalating competition and inflame domestic opinion. Additionally, I have found that inciting outrage can push leaders to act in a more aggressive manner — as well as bolster domestic pressures for action.

Here’s what this means. Rhetoric is not simply bluster when it infuses a dispute with greater emotional salience and intangible value. This can raise the perceived stakes in a dispute with very real consequences.

Seeking confrontation or seeking solutions?

Granted, at present the South China Sea isn’t the only set of issues in an increasingly tense bilateral relationship. Without doubt, there is much that is extraordinarily concerning in Beijing’s recent actions toward Hong Kong and Xinjiang, among others. But those issues — and the responses for addressing them — are of a very different nature than the disputes between Washington and Beijing in the South China Sea. As the United States rhetorically lumps the South China Sea disputes into a general category involving “Beijing’s abuses” and challenges to the international rule-based order, the harder it may become to find a practical path to manage differences in the South China Sea, and avoid sliding further toward all-out confrontation.

In reality, the rules-based order is not perfectly clear-cut, and Beijing is not alone in not sharing Washington’s interpretations of international law as it applies to the seas. The United States finds quarrel with upward of two dozen countries it sees as restricting the freedom of navigation, including Malaysia and India — and does not recognize elements of maritime boundary claims made by Japan, Vietnam and Thailand. And as Beijing does not tire of pointing out, the United States itself has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Although to be fair, the United States has long adhered to the bulk of UNCLOS provisions, treating them as customary international law.

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Nothing here justifies Beijing’s behavior and military buildup in the South China Sea, but the complexities of the situation suggest a more nuanced approach might be warranted. Upping the ante rhetorically, as Pompeo’s statement appears to do, risks turning the South China Sea into the site of a showdown over the future of the world order.

Beijing has responded with strident rhetoric of its own. Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the United States of having “lost its mind, morals and credibility.” The escalating rhetoric would appear to move all sides further away from finding offramps toward a mutually tolerable solution in the South China Sea — even if it means agreeing to continue disagreeing in principle.

Ideally, as scholar Lyle Goldstein has argued, the U.S. goal could initiate “cooperation spirals … a gradual and reciprocal process of de-escalation.” While that is looking ever more challenging, a good start might be reining in the rhetoric.

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Todd H. Hall is an associate professor in the University of Oxford’s department of politics and international relations and the tutor in politics for St Anne’s College. He is the author of “Emotional Diplomacy: Official Emotion on the International Stage” (Cornell University Press, 2015).