The Buzz

This Is How America Can Make China Pay a Price in the South China Sea

As if things could not get any worse in the South China Sea, China’s placement and testing of anti-ship missiles in the South China Sea all but confirms Asia’s worst fears: America’s goal to ensure that China’s rise is peaceful and that Beijing would take its place among nations of the Asia-Pacific and larger Indo-Pacific as a “responsible stakeholder” is dead and buried.

And to make matters worse: Beijing does not seem to care about the tension it’s creating throughout the region with every runway or missile it places on its fake islands.

“China’s deployment of national defense facilities on its own territory is reasonable and justified,”explained Chinese spokesman Hong Lei on Wednesday. He remarked, “It has nothing to do with the so-called militarization.” Unfortunately, nothing says militarization like advanced missiles that are capable of sinking naval warships.

So what is the United States’ next move? Is there any way to halt China’s seemingly unstoppable advance towards during the South China Sea into “Lake Beijing”? The first step is to admit failure — to admit that Washington’s policy of trying to mold and shape China’s rise and hope it would not challenge the status-quo is over. Washington must now do all it can to halt Beijing’s attempts to alter the status-quo through slick methods of coercion. While some of these ideas I have laid out in a previous column, considering that Chinese actions throughout the South China Sea have intensified, they are worth reintroducing and expanding upon.

I would argue for a radically different approach in an effort to halt Chinese coercion in the South China Sea. Such an effort must include the following:

1. Time for Communications 101: Manage the message (And don’t go off message):

Start with a consistent, “top line” message that would be repeated over and over with singular clarity throughout the administration. It would enunciate clearly America’s main geopolitical aims and intentions in Asia. Something like the below would work well:

“America’s most important goal — that it shares with partners and allies across the Asia-Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific — is the maintenance of a peaceful and prosperous status-quo that ensures no one nation unilaterally coerce other countries or attempt to bend their will through coercive measures, turn near-seas or oceans into territory or use hostile acts to achieve its aims.”

2. ‘Lawfare’ must be intensified:

Washington should work with its allies and partners in the South China Sea to settle any disputes in the region that do not involve Beijing. America must work with its friends throughout Asia to make sure they can speak with a united, multilateral voice against Chinese coercion. This would be a big down payment towards such a goal.

And while certainly not an easy task, Beijing’s growing mastery of the region could spur these parties to reach agreement. With this concluded all parties that have claims against China could then join the Philippines and file their own challenge in recognized international courts. While “lawfare,” as it is now know, will likely draw no formal challenge from China beyond its claims of “indisputable sovereignty,” a much larger filing by a united front of nations would certainly constitute a stronger action.

While Washington would take no stance in such a large, multilateral lawfare action, it could offer important support in the press and diplomatically, urging Beijing to settle such disputes before court rulings turn public opinion even further against its efforts to dominate the South China Sea.

Another idea along the same lines could see South China Sea claimants file a flood of separate lawsuits — but all filed simultaneously for maximum impact. This would clearly make China worry — creating a public-relations nightmare that no one dismissive press conference could easily cast aside.

3. Time to shame Beijing:

With the success last year of a CNN film crew demonstrating to the world how fast Beijing was changing the status-quo with its island reclamation projects in the South China Sea, it seems clear that shaming China could be part of an effective plan to halt its challenge to the status-quo.

So why not take this approach a step further? Why not make the world aware of every move Beijing makes? For example: when China constructs a new runway that could be used to patrol the South China Sea, photos and video should be distributed to the media immediately. Or, if Beijing places jets or even more missiles on its new islands, the world should have pictures and video plastered on every major news outlet as soon as possible. While this does happen organically, a US government effort that could lead such an effort would be much more effective and have more resources behind it.

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