The Buzz

Revealed: How to Roll Back China's Misdeeds in the South China Sea

Over the last six years, the South China Sea has become a boiling cauldron. China's expansive claim and stubborn assertiveness in this body of water, through which half of the world's shipping tonnage passes, have rattled not only littoral countries but also the world's major powers. What should these countries do to reverse China's assertive course and stabilize the South China Sea?

China's Winning Strategy 

China has a geopolitical design and a subtle strategy for the South China Sea. Beijing usually blames other countries for causing its assertive actions and denies allegations of strategic intentions in the South China Sea. However, playing the victim is no way to deceive public opinion. It is China's hope that a combination of "4 Ps"—power, proximity, patience, and persistence—would eventually make it the ruler of the South China Sea.

Like in a game of go, China slowly but surely put pieces in key positions on the board. Over several decades, China has invested heavily in modernizing its navy and developing a formidable flotilla of maritime enforcement vessels, big fishing fleets, and mobile drilling platforms to assert administrative control. Beijing has also built artificial islands and set up airfields, logistic facilities, and surveillance centers in the Paracels and the Spratly areas, which enable it to extend its reach and project power.

Southeast Asian Claimants' Helplessness:

ASEAN claimants often lag behind China's initiatives and respond with toothless measures. As all consider relations with a rising China important, they have been slow to realize that Beijing no longer subscribes to Deng Xiaoping's guidance to "hide capabilities and bide time."

Even when they realized that China has been more confident and assertive, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have failed to cooperate among themselves to define disputed areas, fearing that overreaction would harm their ties with China.

Even if they are able to fashion a unified tougher stance, a union of ASEAN claimants is not able to change China's approach. Even with some level of patience and persistence, they collectively cannot match China in terms of power.

U.S. Partial Responses:      

In this author's opinion, the United States, the only power that can check China's geopolitical ambition, has not had an effective, cohesive strategy for the South China Sea. Concerned about China's rise, the Obama administration has undertaken a "pivot" to Asia and the Pacific after a decade of putting priorities elsewhere. The U.S. is shifting 60 percent of its naval assets to the region, advocating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and is playing a more active role in ASEAN-led multilateralism to keep China in check. However, this pivot is more or less "tiptoeing around" China rather than a specific course of action to stall China's assertiveness in the maritime domain.

Washington did react strongly to China's recent assertive actions. It has sent warships and flown surveillance planes near China's artificial islands to assert freedom of navigation. Nevertheless, these measures were rather spontaneous and not part of a long-term plan to preclude China's calculated moves. In other words, the U.S. sustained commitment to defend the rule of law and the status quo in the South China Sea is questionable.  

In Search for Pacification-A Shared Vision and a Joint Strategy:

The South China Sea matter is broader than control of islands, rocks, and shoals, access to maritime resources, and freedom of navigation. It is an issue of international maritime order. Should the integrity of UNCLOS be compromised by Chinese coercion, Chinese rule begins.

In the South China Sea, China largely has an upper hand vis-à-vis other contenders because it has a strategy that plays to its advantages. Though the U.S. has some edge over China in terms of strategic power, the latter has clear advantages in terms of proximity, patience, and persistence. The Southeast Asian claimants equal China in these three metrics, but lag China in terms of power. These imbalances mean that there would be no chance for smaller claimants or the United States to stabilize the South China Sea if they work separately.

Southeast Asian claimants, the United States, and other seafaring nations have a shared interest in a stable and rule-based South China Sea. They are undertaking a range of dialogues and joint maritime initiatives, such as collaborative diplomacy, provision of patrol ships and military hardware, capacity building, and joint military and non-military exercises. However, these efforts fall short of a shared vision and a cohesive joint strategy, which is needed to roll back China's assertive course and prevent it from flexing muscle in the future.

Washington should show a proof of commitment by ratifying the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Then, the US, its allies, and Southeast Asian claimants should initiate and lead a discussion on a joint strategy among them to pacify the South China Sea.