How America Should Confront China's Unchecked Maritime Bullying

An F/A-18E Super Hornet prepares to make an arrested landing on the flight deck of USS George Washington. Flickr/U.S. Navy

China is increasingly operating not as a strategic rival of the United States, but as a strategic opponent.

The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific recently convened a hearing to discuss the U.S. policy response to China’s maritime push in the South and East China Seas. China has so far suffered no discernable cost for its destabilizing activities in these disputed waters. In Congress, there is growing desire to put a check on this belligerence, which Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis observed has “shredded the trust” of other nations and revealed China’s desire for “veto authority over the diplomatic, and security and economic conditions of neighboring states.” Underscoring the critical interests at stake, the hearing made evident that the United States has several unilateral tools available which could finally begin to impose costs on China’s destabilizing actions in the South and East China Seas. We should start using these tools.

Strategic Opponent?

China is increasingly operating not as a strategic rival of the United States, but as a strategic opponent, using force and coercion to consolidate control of these disputed maritime territories, which are vital strategic thoroughfares. More than $5 trillion in trade moves through these waters annually, including most of the energy supply of key U.S. partners like the Republic of Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Eight of the world’s ten busiest container ports are in the Asia-Pacific region, and nearly a third of the world’s maritime trade transits the South China Sea. Since World War II, the U.S. military has facilitated these trade flows and economic vibrancy throughout the region by maintaining security in East Asia.

China, by comparison, has built over 3,200 acres of land over disputed features in the Spratly Islands since 2013, complete with military-capable airstrips, ports, radars, antiaircraft weapons and surface-to-air missile silos. In the East China Sea, China is putting Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and Coast Guard under more and more pressure, employing bigger ships and more frequent provocative military flights. China has also undertaken a significant buildup and reorganization of the People’s Liberation Army, and focused on developing Anti-Access/Area Denial weapons. These moves are likely to increase the army’s force projection and territorial control abilities, possibly indicating the ambition to exclude foreign vessels from China’s near seas at will. While China’s development of enhanced maritime capabilities is not inherently negative to U.S. interests, the illegality of China’s territorial claims, China’s belligerence in enforcing them and the possible intention to constrain the U.S. Navy create a critical challenge for the United States.

Conflict and the U.S. Security Guarantee

China’s conduct in these maritime territorial disputes is relevant to U.S. interests and requires a competent U.S. response for three reasons. First, these actions represent the biggest risk of armed conflict between China and the United States. China has instigated dangerous encounters with U.S. ships and vessels in the past, and recently stole a U.S. oceanographic drone within a few hundred feet of the U.S. ship attempting to retrieve it, a transparent attempt to deliberately engineer an international incident.

Second, this kind of conduct has significant implications for Asia-Pacific regional security. The U.S. Navy has underwritten security in the Asia-Pacific region since 1945, relying on freedom of the seas as guaranteed by international law. U.S. operational freedom has benefitted the region, the United States and the world by facilitating Asia’s economic dynamism.

Third, if unchecked China’s conduct will degrade the U.S.-led international order that has averted major state-to-state conflict since World War II, as well as U.S. security arrangements around the world. Conceding to China’s increasingly belligerent and illegal annexations would harm international law, and permitting the U.S. Navy to be excluded would have a chilling effect on the U.S. security guarantee.

Cooperation with U.S. allies and partners will always be fundamental to our engagement with the Asia-Pacific region, but thus far, a meaningful international response to China’s territorial aggression has been elusive, and multilateral solutions are unlikely to be forthcoming due to China’s successful disruption of Association of Southeast Asian Nations consensus to date. The previous U.S. administration spoke loudly and often about the importance of these maritime territorial disputes to U.S. interests, but backed this talk with very little action, only conducting four freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. Thus far, no costs have been imposed on China’s territorial push.

Unilateral U.S. Options

With little hope for a multilateral solution, the United States should make greater use of unilateral options. At the Asia-Pacific Subcommittee hearing, Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation discussed levying commercial sanctions on Chinese companies that help build China’s artificial islands as a “nonmilitary means of degrading China’s efforts.” This would impose direct costs on these activities, potentially forcing companies to choose between island-building and access to the international market.

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