In asserting its claims in the South China Sea, Beijing “recognizes that international law is not on its side,” says USIP’s Andrew Scobell. Instead, China has resorted to gray-zone provocations against the Philippines and others that “are deliberate, on China’s part, to keep [the situation] below the threshold of war.”

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Laura Coates: Joining us now Dr. Andrew Scobell, who is a distinguished fellow with the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He focuses on U.S.-China relations, China's armed forces and defense policy, and China's foreign relations with countries and regions all around the world. Dr. Scobell. Welcome, and how are you?

Andrew Scobell: Thanks. Good morning.

Laura Coates: I'm glad that you are here with us today. I mean, there has been a lot happening that's going on right now with recent provocations by China, against, Philippine vessels. It's nothing new. But it's consistent with Beijing's toolkit, of course of actions you've said in the South China Sea that's gone on for really literally decades. Can you take us back a little bit as to what the run-ins have meant, and why it's so significant?

Andrew Scobell: Well, China claims the, essentially the entire South China Sea. But it bases this on historical factors, not legal factors. So, it's not really consistent with international law. So, two things, China has sought to push these claims through a variety of instruments of national power. But avoiding getting into details because it recognizes that international law is not on its side. So as you mentioned over a set of decades, Beijing has sought to advance its claims through a strategy of what I call slow intensity conflict, really using what people now call gray zone activities to expand its control of islands and reefs in the South China Sea. And so this latest incident with the Philippines is, just the continuation of that slow intensity complex strategy.

Laura Coates: And this gray zone, as you mentioned, is it something that China believes is a gray zone and the rest of the world says it's very clear, or it's internationally regarded as such?

Andrew Scobell: Well, it's the term is widely used. But it's not so much a Chinese term. But I think what it draws attention to is activities, provocations, coercions below the threshold of war. And China recognizes that or doesn't want doesn't desire a conflict with any country, especially the United States. So these kinds of provocations, are deliberate on China's part to keep it below the threshold of war and China realizes that the Philippines may be weak, but it has a very powerful ally, the United States. And so by keeping it below the threshold of war in this gray zone, China seeks to avoid escalating things to a conflict that would draw in the United States, because the U.S. would invoke its mutual defense treaty.

Laura Coates: So, what is the role of the United States? And is it is the U.S. responding between defend the Philippines in case of an armed attack or what is the nature of the U.S. response?

Andrew Scobell: Well, the U.S. government has been very clear from the very top that the US takes the situation very seriously. And that, if China is not careful, it would cross the line and, the U.S. would come to the defense of the Philippines. In addition to this, a few days after this incident between the Chinese and the Filipinos. There was also a very close call between a Chinese jet and a U.S. B-52 Bomber where the Chinese jet flew within a matter of feet of the, U.S. airplane. Needless to say very, very dangerous and could have easily resulted in, in a collision. So this was part of a, a wider set of interactions and tensions that involve not just the U.S. and China and not just the Philippines and China, but other countries as well.

Laura Coates: Talk to me more about the U.S. allies and the partners in the western Pacific region. Because America has this resolve, as you say, and actually a lot of saying power in the region. What is China doing to try to undermine the confidence among those allies?

Andrew Scobell: The Chinese try to isolate allies make them message, they're pretty good at messaging that the U.S. may be your friend, but the U.S. is far far away. And it's not likely to, it may not stick around. By contrast, China, we want to be your friend, and we're here for good. We're not going anywhere. And so, it's only smart for you to, you know, to cooperate with China. And really, of course, that means make concessions. So, you know, the challenge for the U.S. is to demonstrate that resolve, reassure our allies. And that's, you know, Alliance management is really, really unglamorous but hard, hard work. You've got to continue, you got to do on a day to day week to week basis.

Laura Coates: Now, is this the role in terms of our foreign diplomats? Or do you think that the President of the United States can or should be doing more?

Andrew Scobell: Well think it's a whole of government, literally a whole of government approach? And I think that's, that's what we're seeing. I mean, just, last week, one of our close, the leader of one of our closest allies, Australia, Prime Minister, Albanese was in Washington. And so this is alliance management engaging with the region from the President on down is, is something this administration takes very seriously. I think they've done a pretty good job.

Laura Coates: Really important to here perspective. Thank you so much for joining us today. Dr. Andrew Scobell. I appreciate it.

Andrew Scobell: You're welcome. Thank you.

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