Rocks and Reefs Aren’t Worth a War with China

May 4, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: DeterrenceIndo-PacificChinaJapanPhilippines

Rocks and Reefs Aren’t Worth a War with China

A peaceful Indo-Pacific hinges on the United States and China learning to live with one another, not more expansive security relationships.


America is willing to sacrifice for uninhabited rocks and reefs in the East and South China Seas. This is one of the main messages from Japanese prime minister Kishida Fumio and Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos’ official visits to the United States. The Biden administration’s doubling down on advancing Indo-Pacific countries’ interests vis-à-vis China represents a reckless strategy in a region where Washington should be especially shrewd and savvy. Instead of fighting others’ battles and setting itself up to fail, Washington should adopt a restrained regional policy to secure its interests.

Primarily, the United States has no vital interest in the outcome of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands or the South China Sea territorial disputes. The islands, rocks, and shoals in question are unpopulated, small, and hold little strategic value. Military outposts on these disputed territories are highly susceptible to attacks, face resupply nightmares, and inherent environmental issues—making any existing or potential Chinese bases more distractions than threats. Additionally, while freedom of navigation in the East and South China Seas is a legitimate concern, Beijing is highly unlikely to halt commerce since it is the prime beneficiary. Not to mention, trade can be rerouted at monetary cost. No lives need to be sacrificed or the world destroyed for mildly cheaper goods.


President Joe Biden’s insistence on U.S. defense treaties with Japan and the Philippines covering the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the Philippines’s military activity in the South China Sea increases tensions and risks conflict with China. Beijing views the two disputes as “core” or vital interests. As such, China is willing to risk war to assert its claim if necessary. Indeed, Beijing became more assertive after Washington announced its “Pivot to Asia,” out of fear it could effectively lose its territorial claims. China’s assertiveness will not disappear with stronger U.S.-Japan-Philippines ties but will likely intensify to test the relationship and attempt to deter it.

Moreover, the “ironclad” security guarantees for Japan and the Philippines’ disputed territory encourage risky behavior. While Japan has been relatively restrained in the East China Sea, its 2012 nationalization of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands intensified the dispute with China. Denationalizing the islands and regulating their ownership, which could cool tensions, are likely off the table so long as Washington fully underwrites Japan’s claims.

Unlike Japan’s restraint, the Philippines has seen increased tensions with China under the Marcos administration. Manilla turned down China’s compromises for joint development in the South China Sea and opted to expand military operations in the region, even permitting U.S. troops to access more bases in the northern Philippines—directly across from Taiwan. This growing U.S. military activity in the region puts pressure on Beijing to respond, increasing the risk of an accident that could spiral into conflict. Instead of seeking to lower tensions between its ally and the most powerful country in Asia, Washington rewards Manilla with more and more joint patrols, which do little to keep the peace.

As the United States would be drawn into a war to defend Japanese and Filipino claims against China, Washington risks losing the Indo-Pacific. While ties with Japan, Australia, and New Zealand would likely survive a conflict—Southeast Asia could very well be lost. For the first time, Southeast Asian elites might choose Beijing over Washington if forced. Besides lost economic opportunities, counterterrorism and counternarcotics efforts could be damaged, as could cooperation on global health—all issues that directly impact American security, prosperity, and well-being.

At best, a U.S.-China war would see the United States severely weakened militarily and economically, possibly even politically fractured at home. Americans would be less able to provide for their families’ basic needs and security.      

Instead of risking U.S. vital interests, Washington should walk back its commitments to defend uninhabited rocks, reefs, and islands in the South and East China Seas. These commitments are already not credible. Would the United States really risk a nuclear war over a shoal thousands of miles away? Though highly uncredible, the reassurances should still be revoked to minimize the risks and replaced with a firm reassurance that the main islands of the Philippines and Japan would be resolutely defended if attacked.

A peaceful Indo-Pacific hinges on the United States and China learning to live with one another, not more expansive security relationships. While centered on China, expanding these relationships without care for vital U.S. interests puts national security in danger. The Biden administration’s persistence in defining international affairs as a grand struggle between democracies and autocracies and the cornerstone of its regional partnerships makes the situation worse. In response, Beijing increasingly sees U.S. policy as a threat to its sovereignty. As an alternative to an ideology-based and military-first approach, a new operating model centered on vital interests and diplomacy is needed.

Quinn Marschik is a Contributing Fellow at Defense Priorities.