10 Ways for America to Deal with the South China Sea Challenge

"Steering through intensified competition in the South China Sea and beyond requires a realistic U.S. foreign policy founded on deep engagement, comprehensive power, and durable principles."

Maritime tensions in Asia are growing and will persist, and yet relations are likely to remain bounded below the threshold of military conflict. Steering through intensified competition in the South China Sea and beyond requires a realistic U.S. foreign policy founded on deep engagement, comprehensive power, and durable principles.

Cooperating with China when interests overlap is in the U.S. national interest. Likewise, confronting China over issues where our interests diverge—including over rules in the maritime and cyber domains—is also integral to America’s future power and purpose. But expectations about dampening all maritime frictions should be kept modest. Even with calls for grand bargains and strategic accommodation, well into the next U.S. administration we will be navigating in the messy middle ground between war and peace. Although such volatility may be uncomfortable, achieving a firmer footing with China will be elusive. That is because the primary competition in the South China Sea is rooted in a reemerging China’s capacity and desire for expanding influence over its neighbors and adjacent waters, en route to securing a position as a if not the major global power in the 21st century.

The Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific region will offer some of the greatest opportunities and challenges for U.S. foreign policy in the decades ahead. In addressing what we need to do with respect to maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the United States needs to place all of our foreign policy activities within a comprehensive framework designed to bring about future decades of stability, prosperity, and freedom.

The driving force behind America’s gradual rebalance to the Indo-Pacific is rooted in secular trends. For the first time since the 18th century, Asia is becoming the locus of the global economy and world politics.

It is important to understand that the South China Sea is not just or even mostly about rocks, reefs, and resources. While some have likened China and the South China Sea to America and the Caribbean, such an analogy quickly loses its explanatory power because of the stark differences between the two bodies of water and changes in the global economy. Unlike the Caribbean in the mid-19th century, the South China Sea is at the nexus of the global economy.  All maritime powers depend on it because through its waters sail half of the world’s commercial shipping by tonnage (valued at more than $5.3 trillion). Furthermore, Southeast Asian nations comprise nearly two-thirds of a billion people with a GDP pushing $4 trillion in purchasing power parity; and there are great expectations for those economies in the decades ahead. Finally, we live in—or should at least strive to live in—a world governed by rules, not spheres of influence, such as those that may have been more in vogue in the 19th century. Thus, it is rules and order that remain at the heart of America’s interests in Asia and the South China Sea.

Over the past decade, China has transitioned from a hide-and-bide approach to greater activism in and beyond the South China Sea. While China has become marginally more transparent, in important areas it is as opaque as ever. As with China’s expansive nine-dash-line claim to the South China Sea, there appear to be important areas of policy that China simply does not wish to clarify.

China’s largely opportunistic push into the South China Sea is backed by an impressive array of military and nonmilitary actions designed to exert greater control over its neighborhood. China is enhancing its strategic position through its incremental salami slicing tactics, which accrete to major changes to the status quo while warding off escalation. Its hasty island-building project is not just intended to change facts on the ground before international legal proceedings can run their course, but also to gain an upper hand over the region and intimidate neighbors into aligning with China. Consistent with China’s non-kinetic “three warfares” (informational, legal, and psychological) doctrine, this positioning is a mixture of the physical and mental.

China continues to set the pace in regional defense spending with continuous, near-double-digit increases that now outpace the growth of the Chinese economy. Investments in ballistic and cruise missiles, for instance, are eroding America’s previous advantage in precision strike systems. As a result, America’s ability and perceived willingness to risk projecting power forward in defense of allies and partners is likely to be increasingly called into question unless the United States finds effective responses. China is also busy building many more cost-effective capabilities, military and non-military alike, to deny and ultimately control sea and air space, as well as cyber and outer space, in and around the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Taiwan Strait.

The United States, too, must step up the level of activity to counter potential regional instability.  At stake is whether the future order is built on fair and inclusive principles akin to those that have empowered China’s and Asia’s remarkable stability and prosperity. Working with allies and partners, the United States can continue to realize its vision of an inclusive, stable, and rules-based order. There are ten essential elements of a U.S. foreign policy to deal with the South China Sea. They are intended to foster cooperation backed by clarity of purpose, fairness, and multidimensional strength.

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