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Revealed: How America Could Stop China in the South China Sea

Beijing’s release of its new military strategy has surely captured the attention of many. Now, more than ever before, the Chinese military has made clear its intentions to develop maritime capabilities that will enable Beijing to assert claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea and project military reach far beyond their immediate periphery. In the South China Sea, over the last two years alone, Chinese efforts have expanded the islands around Firey Cross Reef and Mischief Reef by 2,000 acres – equivalent to nearly 1,500 football fields—and counting. This massive “territory” building and the significant Chinese military build-up coupled with the release of strategic guidelines for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has sent clear signals to the Pentagon and U.S. allies in the region. China is a global competitor aggressively pursuing their aims and threatening to upend regional stability.

Given news of Vietnam’s own land reclamation projects in the region, officials in Beijing have no doubt realized that they have some catching up to do. The latest Chinese military strategy will give further weight to their claims, revealing a willingness to use newly developed maritime capabilities as a means for asserting territorial sovereignty both in the South China Sea and well beyond. Each step in the Chinese establishment of greater territorial sovereignty has been individually too small to provoke a strong U.S. or regional military response.

This gradualist strategy is asymmetric from the perspective of value placed on the outcome. China cares immensely both about the specific objective of building islands perceived to be Chinese territory and the tangible goal of establishing sovereignty within the nine-dash line. Onlookers in Washington seem to care less about each individual minor link in the chain of manufactured territories and more about the broad strategic implications of Chinese military outposts in the South China Sea. Aside from the longer-term challenges posed for regional stability and U.S. alliances across Asia, policymakers and onlookers are also concerned by the implications island reclamation has for the principle of freedom of the seas and skies. Presumably because of this asymmetry of interests, the United States has done very little to date, beyond surveillance efforts, in response to PLA-led island reclamation.

As China continues to create a buffer zone along its periphery, the latest developments in island reclamation demand a close examination by policymakers—and a carefully crafted response from the Obama administration. Aside from the increased presence and focus upon the region that comes with the rebalance to Asia, the United States lacks an operable strategy in response to the goals of China’s incremental but relentless territorial grabs. Washington has become all too preoccupied with a military response, often overlooking the necessity of folding other policy responses into the toolkit of the U.S. regional strategy. A heavy military response could lead to miscalculation and conflict, endangering the stability vital to U.S. interests and those of our allies that we seek to preserve. And while maintaining a strong forward based presence to prevent and deter conflict remains central to any strategy, other elements of a hybrid approach should be considered.

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One feasible alternative requires turning to the economic realm. While policymakers remain fixated with island-building, Washington must be cautious not to undervalue tools of economic leverage in the U.S.-China relationship. China is already quite adept at wielding economic instruments alongside a military presence in pursuit of policy objectives. In 2012, for instance, Beijing suddenly restricted banana imports from the Philippines in retaliation for a flare-up in disputed waters near Scarborough Shoal. The Chinese edict—expanded to include other tropical fruits—dealt a heavy blow to Filipino farmers dependent upon exports to China for their income. As soon as a bilateral agreement was reached to simultaneously pull vessels from the Shoal, so too was the fruit embargo lifted by Beijing.

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