The Buzz

The Story of the 21st Century: China's Challenge to Pax Americana

The United States has sought to maintain its strategic and economic supremacy in the Asia-Pacific, but traditional diplomatic tools and displays of military strength are having less of a deterrent effect on China's expansion in the region. China is accelerating its challenge to Pax Americana, the post-World War II international order shaped by the United States, and is pushing the boundaries of its security presence in the region by contesting the sovereignty of several ASEAN member states through territorial claims and provocative behavior. China is also reshaping the economic architecture of the Asia-Pacific to bolster Chinese influence through creation of new financial mechanisms such as the Silk Road Fund and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). China is no longer taking a back seat to Pax Americana, and the United States should seize opportunities that maintain its influence in the Asia-Pacific.

US security interests in the South China Sea are challenged by Chinese encroachment. The sovereignty of several ASEAN states, including Vietnam and the Philippines, has been threatened by China's illegal fishing and energy exploration in their exclusive economic zones, and the broader maritime region has been destabilized by China's "nine-dash line" claim to nearly the entire South China Sea. The most recent threat comes from land reclamation efforts in the Spratly Islands, where, in the last year alone, China has built six islands where none previously existed to expand military power-projection capabilities and to support, with military assets, its fishing fleet and oil and natural-gas exploration.

The United States finds itself diplomatically conflicted when the sovereignty of an ASEAN state is threatened by China. The targeted country should stand up for itself, but it may not have the capacity or political will to act. However, if it does respond and is overly aggressive in doing so, it may elevate tensions to a point where US intervention may be required. The military and diplomatic costs of a US maritime intervention must be calibrated against the cost of an unanswered provocation that may embolden China and damage regional perceptions of US leadership. The United States has supported ASEAN's issuance of unified statements aimed at China that express "serious concerns over on-going developments in the South China Sea," but these statements have done little to alter Chinese actions thus far, and further thought by US policy makers is needed. 

China's aggressive actions have led ASEAN countries to seek protection by strengthening military ties with one another and with regional powers such as the United States and Japan. The Philippines and Vietnam have committed to strengthening military training and handling of maritime violations in the face of disputes with China in the South China Sea. The Philippines reengaged the US militarily by signing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Vietnam struck a deal with Japan to receive six patrol boats in the wake of China's deployment of an oil rig in the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam. Just last month. Indonesia and Japan agreed to establish a Maritime Forum under which Japan will bolster Indonesia's maritime safety capacity through efforts including financial assistance and port infrastructure development. This flurry of bilateral engagement reflects a shared concern among Pacific nations over the threat China poses to maritime security and a newfound willingness to work together to maintain peace and stability in the region.

The territorial disputes that encourage bilateral ties among some ASEAN nations can also be a source of division within ASEAN institutions, particularly for nations without claims in the South China Sea. The ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit are important multilateral venues for discussing security and political issues in Asia but are criticized for their lack of action. The United States has long grappled with how best to leverage ASEAN institutions to further its security goals, but there may be a new opportunity to capitalize on a joint maritime peacekeeping force proposed by the newly appointed ASEAN Chair. The force would unite ASEAN nations to address territorial disputes and could offer advantages over existing fora by more narrowly focusing on the maritime domain and by being operational and not merely aspirational. The commander of the US 7th Fleet has already pledged support should ASEAN organize and lead such an effort.