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What Should the U.S. Do in the South China Sea?

Beijing continues to push the envelope, and Washington seems stymied. What's a better way forward?


As the 14th annual Asia Security Summit — or the Shangri-la Dialogue, as it has come to be known — gets underway in Singapore, FP partner ChinaFile asked contributors to comment on what appears to be a recent escalation in tensions between the U.S. and China over the two countries’ presence in the South China Sea.

Yanmei Xie, Senior China Analyst, International Crisis Group:

The game has changed in the South China Sea. By sending a military aircraft to take a close-up view of the outposts China is constructing and stating it “will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” the U.S. appears to have drawn a red line for Beijing.

Washington demonstrated its substantive investment in freedom of navigation and open access to Asia’s maritime commons and displayed resolve to counter threats to them. The message, delivered via the navy, will discredit a calculation by some Chinese and regional actors that the United States is unwilling or incapable of delivering more than verbal protests, because it is distracted by crises in other parts of the world. It may also stiffen the spines of other players, most importantly the Association of South East Asia Nations (ASEAN).

The United States, however, needs to clarify its red line, bearing in mind the attendant risks. By doing so it may influence Beijing’s cost-benefit calculation about how to use the outposts it is building on remote reefs and deter China from restricting access to the high seas and international airspace. Painstaking U.S. diplomacy might also bring all claimants to agree to a moratorium on island reclamation over time. “An immediate and lasting halt” to such activities, as laid down by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, is a much taller order, unless Washington stands ready to impose a cost on Beijing that would risk damaging bilateral relations and regional stability. Laying down a red line but failing to enforce it would cost the United States credibility around the world.

Washington needs to state and re-state that what it is determined to defend is the global commons, not its naval supremacy in the South China Sea. The former wins high ground in the court of international opinion. The latter may generate headlines for the grandstanders wanting to see U.S.-Chinese rivalry, but will likely result in a limited alliance and set the region down a zero-sum track.

To ensure region-wide cooperation, Washington has to ensure that its show of resolve provides a backbone for ASEAN, but does not replace it as the main body that manages South China Sea disputes. Southeast Asian nations desire the security offered by a lasting U.S. presence but fear anything that would turn the South China Sea into a theatre of big-power competition. Any unilateral deterrence and enhancement to regional alliances should be accompanied by efforts to shore up ASEAN’s competence and unity. Otherwise the region’s only self-governance body risks a further loss of relevance.

After delivering its warnings loud and clear through a military aircraft, Washington should allow time and space for regional diplomacy. With a shot in the arm, ASEAN may find a more assertive voice to speak with Beijing. China, with its President Xi Jinping set to visit the U.S. in September, may find incentives to tamp down tensions with Washington so as to ensure Xi has a successful visit.

Andrew S. Erickson, Associate Professor, U.S. Naval War College:

In attempting to prevent China from using military force to resolve island and maritime claims disputes in the South China Sea, the United States will increasingly face Beijing’s three-pronged trident designed precisely to preserve such a possibility. Maritime militia and Coast Guard forces will be forward deployed, possibly enveloping disputed features as part of a “Cabbage strategy” that dares the U.S. military to use force against non-military personnel. Such forces are supported by a deterrent backstop that includes China’s navy and “anti-navy” of land-based counterintervention forces, collectively deploying the world’s largest arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles. In the region, only Vietnam also has a maritime militia, and the U.S. Coast Guard is not positioned to oppose China’s.

In addition to cooperation and capacity building with regional allies and partners, therefore, the U.S. must maintain robust deterrence that paces China’s growing arsenal of counterintervention weapons. Here, unfortunately, Washington continues to suffer lingering effects from mishandling the Iraq War and its aftermath. Among other problems, a decade of land wars with unclear, unrealistic objectives diverted attention and resources from capabilities to preserve the ability of the U.S. military to operate in maritime East Asia even while threatened by Chinese systems. Washington is finally devoting more attention to two types of weapons with particular potential to demonstrate that counterintervention won’t work — missiles and sea mines — but existing efforts may be too slow and limited to arrest an emerging gap between U.S. goals and capabilities.

The following are relevant findings from a conference that the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute just held on China’s naval shipbuilding. China already deploys numerous, increasingly fast, and potent missiles. The U.S. enjoys multi-mission quantitative superiority only in land attack cruise missiles (i.e. Tomahawks). Any assumption of U.S. Navy superiority relies on next-generation long-range anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), as-yet unpurchased and unfielded on surface combatants. These “paper missiles,” which may be difficult to target under counterintervention conditions, are the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile and the Naval Strike Missile. The latter represents the extraordinary case of the U.S. looking to Norway (in partnership with Raytheon) to supply a key weapons system that U.S. industry itself should have been able to produce on favorable terms years ago. As for surface-to-air missiles ASCMs, China remains on track to enjoy quantitative parity or better. Land-based missiles with potential to threaten U.S. ships and ports from which they deploy include the world’s only anti-ship ballistic missile — a tiny fraction of the world’s foremost sub-strategic ballistic missile force deployed by China. Unless this gap can be filled credibly, China is on course to “outstick” the U.S. Navy by 2020 by deploying greater quantities of missiles with greater ranges than those of the U.S. ship-based systems able to defend against them.

Even maintaining mutual deterrence vis-à-vis China could be good enough for the U.S. — Washington’s key objective is to prevent the use, or threat, of force to resolve regional disputes. But allowing even the perception that such ability to “hold the ring” has eroded could gravely threaten the stability of a dynamic region that remains haunted by history.

Image: Storm Crypt via Flickr

Yanmei Xie is International Crisis Group’s Senior China Analyst. She focuses on China’s foreign policy and its impact on conflict and potential conflict situations.

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