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

July 29, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: South China SeaTerritoryInternational Law

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."

A fifth recommended action is to build a maritime coalition of the willing to ensure that South China Sea issues remain on the top tier of regional diplomacy. The United States should leverage ASEAN’s convening power to bring together a wider coalition of maritime powers. Key members would include Japan, Australia and India, all of whom understand that the South China Sea is a vital part of the global economy and not just one big country’s pond. We can underscore rules and expectations, as well as think through in advance a common response to perceived provocations such as a possible declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. Thus, from ASEAN Regional Forum ministers’ meetings to more inclusive diplomatic institutions such as the East Asia Summit process and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus, the United States should insist on elevating the South China Sea issue to the highest priority to discourage China from taking assertive and counterproductive actions in the South China Sea.

Sixth, the United States should maintain a constant presence in the South China Sea. Singapore has enabled a steady if quiet presence, most recently by hosting up to four littoral combat ships.  Additional disbursement of capabilities and the creation of additional access agreements, including for extended rotational tours, such as those envisaged in the Philippines and already announced in Australia, can reinforce our commitment to stability and engagement. Completing a buildup on Guam and the Marianas, though outside the South China Sea, can provide a tremendous opportunity for region-wide exercising and training of maritime, air, and coast guard forces.

Seventh, the United States should support an overlapping regional transparency regime that serves multiple objectives. A transparency regime refers to not only physical infrastructure for gathering information but also the institutions to process it and the political channels to share it, both within and between governments. At the broadest level, by supporting greater transparency of developments in the South China Sea, we can help the region arm itself with facts to deal with everything from search and rescue or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, to the fortification of artificial islands or provocative deployments of vessels. Leveraging our relations with allies such as the Philippines and other like-minded states, the United States can build on this general information-sharing regime to create a higher fidelity common operating picture for early warning and contingency response. The technical capacity to build such a regime already exists, but U.S. leadership will be needed to build the supporting political framework. Let’s put the spotlight on destabilizing actions so that we can reinforce the diplomacy at high-level regional and global gatherings.

Eighth, in addition to building maritime domain awareness, we should also be building national and multinational defensive and deterrent capacity for supporting assured access throughout the South China Sea. The broader maritime coalition alluded to above could undertake periodic, perhaps even quarterly, air and sea patrols in the South China Sea to review developments up close as well as to provide a capacity to respond to all hazards, ranging from the non-traditional to more traditional security risks. The aim of such capacity is defensive, offering smaller countries reassurance and hopefully deterring acts of aggression and unilateral changes to the status quo through force.

Ninth, the United States should seek to clarify types of behavior that would be objectionable and against which the United States would work with others to impose costs. Harkening back to the basic principles and the desire to strengthen U.S. presence and regional engagement, the United States should make clear that it opposes and will continue to oppose certain specific types of activities throughout the South China Sea. The precise details should be thoroughly vetted by a beefed-up cadre of government experts on international maritime law. But for illustrative purposes, let me suggest the following types of actions we should consider opposing: (a) blockading any feature occupied by another claimant, such as Second Thomas Shoal occupied by the Philippines; (b) seizing or encroaching on any feature occupied by another claimant, such as China’s seizure of the western half of the Paracels from South Vietnam in 1974 and of Johnson South Reef from Vietnam in 1988; (c) the seizure of any unoccupied feature by denying access to other claimants, such as China’s current exclusion of Philippine nationals from Scarborough Reef; (e) sovereignty claims over features that are not islands, i.e., those that are not naturally above high tide, or over low-tide-elevations that are more than 12 nautical miles from islands, such as Mischief Reef and Subi Reef; (g) claims to territorial sea or EEZ from baselines that are not consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), such as those based on low-tide elevations or artificial islands that are more than 12 nautical miles from islands; (i) claims to maritime space that is excessive according to international law on maritime delimitation, such as China's claims to the maritime space inside the nine-dash line; (j) (k) spurious military alert zones, such as that established over the deep-sea oil platform HD-981 or in the case of U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon overflights; and (l) the establishment of ADIZs over the disputed features and their waters.

Tenth, we should enumerate a menu of potential cost-imposition policy options that transcend reputational and legal costs and make clear that bad behavior will incur a price. The kinds of measures that might be for deterring and responding to assertive and destabilizing acts might include multinational sea and air patrols could emulate recent U.S. P-8 maritime patrols to make an emphatic point about what is permitted under UNCLOS. Similarly, if a country wants to build an artificial island for military purposes in disputed waters and then suggest it might be used for humanitarian assistance, then during the next regional disaster we might test that proposition by landing a civilian aircraft on one of the newest runways. If China tries to prevent the resupply of the grounded Philippine naval vessel BRP Sierra Madre at Ayungin Shoal, then the United States might not only offer to resupply it, but could also consider deploying a few Marines on rotation as part of the crew’s training detachment. These and many other moves are the kind of muscular punctuation points designed not to ignite conflict but rather to clarify acceptable and unacceptable behavior and reinforce the kind of rule set the region should and can live by.

Let me sum up my argument. Growing tensions in the South China Sea are threatening to arrest one of the most significant developments in modern history: namely, the rise of Asia and the largely U.S.-created order on which stability and prosperity rest. China’s assertive reemergence is challenging regional stability. Its rapid military modernization, frequent resort to tailored coercion, and artificial-island-cum-military-base-building program in the South China Sea directly undermine both the post-World War II order and American credibility. China’s use of all instruments of power and incremental salami slicing tactics are outmaneuvering the competition. China is gradually de-balancing the region; in the absence of any substantial cost for bad behavior, China is simply being emboldened to carry on with its opportunistic and aggressive probing for regional influence. Without an effective counterweight to keep China honest, safeguard freedom of navigation and access to the global commons for all, and uphold the rule of law, China will achieve a slow-motion hegemony throughout the South China Sea.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Image: Flickr/PACOM