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 exercis e 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.