America Must Take a Stand in the South China Sea

If we are not prepared to back our principles with strength, then we should not be surprised when an opportunistic and increasingly capable China takes full advantage of a vacuum of power.

Navigating the stormy waters of the South China Sea will require a realistic U.S. foreign policy anchored by comprehensive power, deep engagement, and enduring principles.

The South China Sea is center stage for Asia’s intensifying maritime competition.  China is incrementally but inexorably moving to assert its claim over the vast majority of that semi-enclosed body of water, which covers more than twice the area of Alaska.  Back in 2010, when Chinese heavy-handedness was resonating throughout the region, Beijing hinted that the South China Sea was now a “core interest.”  Yet it is not just China (and Taiwan) that border on that marginal sea, but also six Southeast Asian states harboring their own legitimate concerns about sovereignty and security.

Beyond Asia, the South China Sea is at the nexus of the global economy upon which all major trading nations’ prosperity depends.  About 90 percent of global commercial trade is seaborne, and more than a third of all that trade crosses the South China Sea.  Yet the South China Sea is the epicenter of China’s maritime buildup, and the same vicinity within the so-called “first island chain” where America’s ability to project power in support of freedom of the seas is increasingly open to question.

China’s newfound capabilities and misplaced faith in its own precarious authoritarian system are the main sources of instability.  As Orville Schell recently observed, China’s “new confidence in its wealth and power has been matched by an increasingly unyielding and aggressive posture abroad that has been on most vivid display in its maritime disputes in the South and East China seas.”

Although China is not exclusively to blame for unilateral changes to the status quo, it is by far the most frequent and egregious flouter of regional norms and international law in this maritime commons. China is resorting to tailored coercion to alter facts on the ground and create new ground as well.  It’s mixing measured amounts of military and law-enforcement pressure, backed by economic, information, legal, and psychological warfare. In the past two years, China has added 3,000 acres of new land to small and submerged features in the South China Sea.

Although the other South China Sea claimants (the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei) have sought to buttress their sovereignty claims over the decades, their efforts are dwarfed by the scale and pace of China’s activity.  As Andrew S. Erickson and Kevin Bond noted in this publication, “China has managed to create more than 17 times more land in 20 months than all of the other claimants combined over the past 40 years, accounting for 95% of all artificial land in the Spratlys.”

In the hasty excavation process, China’s behemoth dredging machines have inflicted considerable damage to the fragile marine ecosystem.  Sadly, the purpose of this artificial-island and military-base construction binge is to help substantiate a flimsy legal claim to a nine-dash line area covering most of the South China Sea. Beijing undoubtedly wants to fortify its position before next year, when an international tribunal is set to rule in on a case brought by the Philippines regarding the questionable legal basis underpinning China’s claims.

Through incremental, salami slicing moves, China is carving out a sphere of maritime influence that evokes anxiety from neighboring countries and sows doubt about the ability of the United States to serve as an honest broker and effective counterweight.  A new 3,000-meter runway on Fiery Cross Reef, for instance, provides a launching pad for any Chinese military aircraft some 740 miles away from the mainland.  China has recently conducted large-scale naval exercises involving some 100 ships and the firing of 100 missiles in the South China Sea, as well as similar drills in the East China Sea and Yellow Sea.  The show of force is meant to intimidate neighboring states with far less capable military and coast guard capabilities.

Chiefly because of China’s maritime pushiness, all of America’s Asian allies are more concerned about the possibility of abandonment than they are of entrapment.  They want to anchor U.S. presence and commitment to balance China’s more strenuous assertions of sovereignty.  Far from America containing China, it is China’s actions that are driving the region closer to Washington and toward each other.

Unlike the East China Sea, where Tokyo’s resoluteness and Washington’s staunch reaffirmation of the U.S.-Japan alliance have helped to check Beijing’s actions, the South China Sea provides more opportunity for adventurism.  The only regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), can provide useful political support and economic cooperation, but the fragility of its consensus is tested whenever confronted with security challenges.