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.
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.
The United States Navy should undertake more frequent and robust freedom of navigation operations, specifically a passage involving normal military operations within twelve miles of an artificial island to challenge China’s tacit assertion that these constructions are a basis for territorial waters. Since 2013, each of the four operations conducted in the South China Sea has been an innocent passage, the appropriate way to travel inside another nation’s territorial sea. In testimony before the subcommittee, Dr. Michael Auslin identified Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation with no legal entitlement to a territorial sea, as a likely target.
The administration and the Congress should also continue the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative and similar military assistance programs while reprioritizing to better reflect present realities. Notably, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte took office in July 2016 and has radically reoriented his nation’s foreign policy towards China. The Philippines was previously the primary beneficiary of the maritime security initiative, and U.S. military assistance strategy should reflect such developments.
The Defense Department should disinvite China from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) biennial multilateral military exercise. China was first invited in 2014, after beginning island building, and brought an uninvited spy ship to collect intelligence at the event. Despite this and China’s provocative maritime behavior, Chinese vessels were again invited in 2016. China should not be rewarded for aggression, and military diplomacy should better reflect U.S. strategic priorities. Additional steps, such as inviting Taiwan to RIMPAC, should also be considered.
The administration could also consider whether to employ asymmetric pressures, a tactic China often uses to advance broader strategic interests. For example, to protest the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system deployment in the Republic of Korea, China has sought to reduce tourism to Korea and used political and regulatory pressure to attack Korean companies. Chinese commercial interests have significant exposure to regulatory gateways in the United States, and similar methods could be pursued.
For years, the United States has acknowledged the threat posed by China’s maritime push but failed to impose costs on it. To do so, we should adopt a new strategy incorporating unilateral options. A less passive U.S. strategy will require greater resolve, but as we have seen, endlessly backing away from conflict carries its own risks. China has taken advantage of U.S. acquiescence to revise the status quo and consolidate its position in these disputed waters. Our timidity hasn’t de-escalated these maritime disputes, but raised the risk of conflict.
Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.