Getting Tough in the South China Sea

Washington is taking a firmer line with Beijing. But can it back it up?

The Obama administration may have finally lost its patience with China’s salami-slicing in the East and South China Seas. Remarks over the past few weeks from administration officials show a tougher line and may foreshadow “red lines” to ward off further Chinese encroachments. These developments may show a White House increasingly ready to abandon a previous policy of forbearance toward China. It could also mean an impending tilt away from explicit U.S. neutrality toward the many territorial disputes in both seas. Given China’s stepped-up assertiveness, the drawing of red lines seems inevitable. The next question though is whether the U.S. will be able to back up these red lines with convincing military power. China’s military modernization program has long anticipated this move, leaving the answer anything but clear.

Heretofore, the U.S. has pursued a policy of forbearance with China, with the hope that by going out its way to show respect for China’s emerging great power status, Washington would avoid a ruinous security competition. In remarks at a Washington, D.C. think-tank in January 2014, Kurt Campbell, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during President Obama’s first term, explained the administration’s theory. According to Campbell, previous historical examples of rising powers clashing with established powers were typically the result of insufficient respect being paid to the rising power (see 55:00 in). In the case of China, Campbell explained that the Obama administration would not repeat that mistake. In her first speech on Asia as President Obama’s new National Security Advisor, Susan Rice mimicked China’s call for “a new model of major power relations” between the U.S. and China and then recited a long list of issues on which she hoped the two countries would cooperate. Rice made no mention of China’s 2012 takeover of Scarborough Reef from the Philippines or China’s establishment that same year of a government headquarters and military garrison on Woody Island in the Paracel island group, which China seized from Vietnam in 1974. Three days after Rice’s speech, China declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea.

In alignment with the China forbearance policy is the U.S. declaration of neutrality regarding the long list of territorial disputes over islands, rocks, and reefs in the East and South China Seas. In a speech on June 1, 2013 to the Shangri-la Dialogue conference of regional defense ministers in Singapore, U.S. defense secretary Chuck Hagel repeated America’s long-standing position that, “we do not take a position on the question of sovereignty in these cases,” only that the U.S. opposes the use of coercion to alter the status quo. This U.S. position has served two purposes. It has allowed the U.S. to avoid writing a blank check to a hypothetically reckless ally, one that could theoretically entrap the U.S. in an unwanted conflict. Second, it supported the forbearance policy by providing U.S. policymakers with a convenient talking point whenever territorial squabbles in the region flared up.

The policies of forbearance and neutrality could not survive if China continued its salami-slicing march across the region. China’s declaration of the East China Sea ADIZ, its continued siege of a tiny Filipino marine garrison on Ayungin Island in the Spratly chain (emotionally described in a long New York Times Magazine essay), and China’s January 2014 edict requiring fishermen in the South China Sea (including in waters far beyond China’s exclusive economic zone) to obtain fishing permits from China may have finally convinced Obama administration officials that the forbearance policy was a failure. Perhaps most worrying for Washington is the nationalistic reaction to these developments in Japan, which is a sign of declining confidence in the U.S. security guarantee and which threatens a loss of U.S. control over events in the region.