China's Secret Strategy to Dominate the South China Sea
South China Sea claimants are awaiting a decision by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in an arbitration case on the legality of the Chinese government’s claims. But regardless of how the UN tribunal decides, South China Sea disputes won’t go away anytime soon. Military activity in the South China Sea is expanding, increasing the risk of “dangerous brinksmanship” over the islands and reefs scattered throughout the region. While the United States Navy has taken the lead in responding to regional military activity, we believe that coast guard-coast guard exchanges can reduce the risk of conflict, while still assuring regional partners of American dedication in the South China Sea.
Over the last year, China has conducted dredging activities at an unprecedented scale, using the newly-built islands to base missile systems and military aircraft. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has conducted substantial drills in the region. India has considered joint patrols with the United States in the South China Sea, and the Philippines and Vietnam have considered similar cooperation. Just last week, the French defense minister called on European countries to have a “regular and visible” presence in the region to maintain freedom of navigation.
The United States has also long been active in the South China Sea, conducting known freedom of navigation operations near Chinese-controlled features in October 2015 and in January and May 2016. In April, the U.S. Air Force stationed four A-10 Warthogs—which carry one of the most powerful aircraft guns ever built—in the Philippines, sending a clear signal to China that the United States is prepared to deal with military conflict in the South China Sea.