The United States’ approach to dealing with China from the Nixon-Kissinger era onwards resembles a forty-five-year science experiment—an experiment that has failed.
The underlying hypothesis was that an accommodating approach to the PRC would inevitably lead to a more liberal China that followed the established rules of the international system. It seemed so logical, as it was under that system that China would so handsomely benefit.
After four-plus decades, there is scant evidence this hypothesis is correct. In fact, the PRC’s relentless effort to create what might cheekily be called a “Greater South China Sea Co-Prosperity Sphere” belies any notion this view was ever correct. China’s island-building expansion across the South China Sea is just the latest evidence that most of the “experts” got China wrong.
Fortunately, the South China Sea is now properly getting attention. But the PRC’s objective is, at a minimum, regional hegemony. While the United States must hold the line in the region and make clear it won’t be bullied out of East Asia, the South China Sea problem will not be resolved in the South China Sea itself.
Rather, a successful approach must also involve simultaneously applying pressure elsewhere on the PRC—and particularly on the ruling elite in the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Ultimately, the United States must take the lead and develop a comprehensive strategy, similar in its broad scope to the strategy used to protect U.S. interests when dealing with the Soviet Union. Although it will be useful to involve other countries in this effort, there is no single country or combination of countries in Asia that by themselves can restrain the PRC. Like it or not, it’s up to the Americans, and an effort to hold the line might include the following components.
Establish That the United States Has Its Own Core Interests
Just as China demands respect for its “core interests”—as if stating them as a core interest automatically makes them unassailable—the United States should declare publicly and privately that it possesses its own core interests in Asia, and will defend them.
This requires more than just talk and furrowed-brow pronouncements of concern—or even of “grave concern.” U.S. forces need to maintain a constant, credible, and obvious presence on, below and above the South (and East) China Sea, regardless of cost.
Establish a Permanent, Serious Presence in the South China Sea
There should be no more half-hearted FONOPs broadcast in advance, as if seeking Chinese acquiescence. This sheepish approach has had minimal effect. The United States should broadly publicize and criticize Chinese military provocations. Don’t hush them up, always respond and be prepared to “bump back” when Chinese vessels use a favored method to impede U.S. ships.
Clarify and Strengthen U.S.-Japan Bonds
Solidly link U.S. and Japanese forces, with the “unsplittable” political linkage that comes with it. This linkage will present People’s Liberation Army (PLA) planners with their most difficult challenge. Neither the United States nor Japan can maintain its position in the Asia-Pacific without the other’s fullest support.
The United States and Japan should continue to better integrate their military capabilities, to include contingency planning, joint training and patrols, and interoperable command-and-control systems. Build camaraderie and interoperability along the lines of the U.S.-UK military relationship, back when bilateral relations were at their peak. A compelling reason for Japan to seek this interoperability is that, once China has the South China Sea “locked up,” the East China Sea is next.
Better alignment of U.S. forces and Japan Self-Defense Forces will also have a bracing effect on other regional nations that are nervously watching the PRC—and just as nervously watching whether the U.S. can and will still lead.
Although ASEAN will never take a unified stance toward PRC territorial aggression, it is possible to encourage a handful of ASEAN nations to do more. For those countries, doing more includes joining multilateral patrols and exercises in the South China Sea and surrounding waters. This, of course, requires convincing these nations that they will not be left hanging due to the United States once again displaying temerity and ambiguity about challenging PRC domination of the region.
Kill “Engagement for Engagement’s Sake”
The United States should restrict engagement with the PLA to what is professional and essential. The longstanding policy of engagement for engagement’s sake has not produced a less belligerent Chinese military, nor has it deterred the PRC. More to the point, it makes the United States appear to be a supplicant, clearly the more interested in developing military-to-military relations, and provides Beijing with a point of leverage where one need not exist. Pending sudden improvement in PRC behavior, the United States should withdraw the PRC’s invitation to the July 2016 RIMPAC exercise in Hawaii.
While “holding the line” in the South China Sea area is essential, pressure needs to be applied elsewhere via a number of different lines of effort.
Implement the Taiwan Relations Act as Originally Intended
The United States should make it clear that it backs Taiwan against any coerced change in the status quo. This means the United States should provide requested high-tech arms, and even submarines. The United States might even push Japan to sell its older subs to Taiwan, keying this to Chinese behavior towards both Japan and Taiwan.
This is not a change from the United States’s longstanding “One China” policy. Yes, the United States recognizes only one China—and a “One China” that looks like Taiwan would not be a bad thing. Taiwan is a priceless reminder that Chinese people can govern themselves in a consensual manner, and have a free press, a full range of individual liberties and a functioning legal system.
Taiwan belies the CPC’s claims that stability and prosperity in China requires repression. This argument recalls apartheid-era Afrikaners insisting that black Africans were a unique race that demanded a boot on the neck, and were happy to have it.
Apply Meaningful Economic Pressure
It is long past time that the PRC follow its World Trade Organization commitments. Rather than continue to allow exceptions, the United States should insist on the simple—but apparently radical, by Washington standards—approach that China obey trade laws.
Also, the Americans might require the PRC to allow reciprocal treatment and market access for U.S. and foreign companies. China’s serial, decades-long record of hacking and intellectual property theft needs to be punished with real sanctions. There are many opportunities for punishing sanctions that would be effective.
The U.S. government’s recent harsh sanctions on Chinese electronics maker ZTE, for illegal dealings with Iran and other sanctioned countries, were a good example of what can be done. Still, it might have been more useful if these sanctions had been kept in place longer than two weeks before the United States backed down.
The United States might also apply pressure of the sort that will squeeze China’s ruling class by upsetting the money-making machine, centered on manufacturing and exports, that is the source of its power. Start taking thirty days to clear Chinese ships entering the United States, rightfully justified by the need to check carefully for counterfeits and unsafe products. Delayed cargo clearance and Lloyd’s of London raising insurance rates would potentially apply more pressure on PRC elites than the U.S. Air Force could dream of inflicting.
Use International Law to Challenge the PRC
The United States should energetically seek to bring territorial and other disputes to international forums for resolution—and support countries that do likewise. Further, in these legal forums, condemn and respond forcefully to the environmental damage foisted on the global commons by unbridled Chinese island building and its rapacious commercial fishing fleet.
This is helpful, but will not be decisive. International law has its limits, and the PRC will either ignore it or absorb whatever criticism ensues from unfavorable court rulings. In the PRC’s view, criticism is a small price to pay for gaining domination of the South China Sea and other useful territory.
Get Beyond Sophomoric Strategic Communication: Develop a Useful U.S. Narrative
In the absence of a clear national strategy for confronting the PRC’s bullying behavior and expansionism, it’s no surprise that what passes for U.S. strategic communication regarding the threat is not working. There is no “whole-of-government” communication approach to the threat, and a lack of useful synchronicity in messaging between the National Security Council, State Department and Department of Defense.
On this point, America should take bold action: it can tell the truth about the PRC.
Further, the United States can aggressively and unapologetically speak up for the system of rights, freedoms and accepted rules of international behavior that, in fact, has been largely responsible for the PRC’s development over the last forty years.
From senior U.S. officials down to the wide range of U.S. influencers, constantly challenge and expose false Chinese claims of the South China Sea being “historically Chinese” and transparently false statements of “non-militarization” of the islands. And go after China’s willful ecological destruction of the reefs and natural habitat of the South China Sea.