Keeping the South China Sea a Peaceful Part of the Global Commons

China’s island building and outfitting activities are a “tipping point” meriting U.S. government response.

In what follows, I offer my assessment of the current situation in the South China Sea, how the U.S. government should understand the situation, and how it may best address the situation.

A major Chinese narrative regarding the South China Sea is one of unreciprocated restraint. But Chinese leaders have clearly had an ambitious long-term vision of some sort, backed by years of island seizures, themselves based on longstanding claims encapsulated in an ambiguous “nine-dash line” enclosing virtually all of the South China Sea.

In 2014, China greatly accelerated what had long been a very modest process of “island building,” developing land features in the Spratlys and Paracels with a scale and sophistication that its neighbors simply cannot match, even collectively over time.

But it’s what China’s constructing atop these augmented features that most concerns its neighbors and the United States: militarily relevant facilities, including at least two 3,000-meter runways capable of serving a wide range of military aircraft, that could allow Beijing to exert increasing leverage over the South China Sea. No other South China Sea claimant enjoys even one runway of this caliber on any of the features it occupies.

One logical application for China’s current activities: to support a South China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) like the one Beijing announced over the East China Sea in November 2013. The way in which China announced its East China Sea ADIZ suggests that it’s reserving the “right” to treat international airspace beyond 12 nautical miles as “territorial airspace” in important respects.

My Naval War College colleague Peter Dutton characterizes China’s island building and outfitting activities as a “tipping point” meriting U.S. government response. Militarizing the newly constructed islands, he argues persuasively, will alter strategic stability and the regional balance of power.

As bad as things are already, they could get worse—particularly if American attention and resolve are in question. Maritime militia and Coast Guard forces will be forward deployed. They might even be used to envelop disputed features as part of a “Cabbage Strategy” that dares the U.S. military to use force against non-military personnel. Such paramilitary forces would be supported by a deterrent backstop that includes both China’s navy and its “anti-navy” of land-based anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), or “counter-intervention,” forces—collectively deploying the world’s largest arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles.

More broadly, worries about China’s island construction, developing South China Sea force posture, and accompanying official statements exemplify broader foreign concern about China’s rise—that as it becomes increasingly powerful, Beijing will:

·       abandon previous restraint in word and deed

·       bully its smaller neighbors

·       implicitly or explicitly threaten the use of force to resolve disputes

·       and attempt to change—or else run roughshod over—important international norms that preserve peace in Asia and underwrite the global system on which mutual prosperity depends

That’s why the United States now needs to adjust thinking and policy to stabilize the situation and balance against the prospect of negative Chinese behavior and influence.

As Peter Dutton has long emphasized, the way forward for the United States is clear: even as China advances, we cannot retreat. Together with the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea, the South China Sea is a vital part of the global commons, on which the international system depends to operate effectively and equitably. Half of global commerce and 90 percent of regional energy imports transit the South China Sea alone. We cannot allow Beijing to carve out within these international waters and the airspace above them a zone of exceptionalism in which its neighbors face bullying without recourse and vital global rules and norms are subordinated to its parochial priorities.

Instead, we must maintain the national will and force structure to continue to operate in, under, and over the South China, East China, and Yellow Seas; and preserve them as peaceful parts of the global commons for all to use freely without fear.

There, given China’s growing power and our own sustained power and resolve, we must accept a zone of managed strategic friction and contestation. This includes accepting the fundamental reality that we will not roll back China’s existing occupation of islands and other features, just as we will not accept its rolling back its neighbors’ own occupation. Most fundamentally, the United States must preserve peace and a stable status quo in a vital yet vulnerable region that remains haunted by history.

We need to pursue a form of great power relations that I term “competitive coexistence.” It is not a comprehensive rivalry, as between Washington and Moscow during the Cold War. Rather, it has specific competitive aspects that we should not exacerbate gratuitously, yet must not shy away from. Beijing’s current leadership is clearly comfortable with a certain level of tension; we must be too.

The above paradigm has important implications for both U.S. rhetoric and policy. First, American officials must recognize what their Chinese counterparts have long understood: words matter. The United States must not appear to embrace Chinese policy concepts or formulations that make us appear to fear tension, or to be willing to yield to Beijing’s principled policy positions in order to mitigate it. Such optics would only encourage Chinese testing and assertiveness vis-à-vis Washington and its regional allies. Accordingly, two particularly problematic formulations favored by Beijing (and their variants) must be banished from the lexicon of American official discourse:

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