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Time for America to Step Up in the South China Sea
America’s challenge to China’s unilateral claims to the international waterways of the South China Sea is long overdue. Chinese strategists have repeatedly told foreign observers that they believe Beijing has a strategic window — until U.S. President Barack Obama leaves office and before a new president adopts a tougher approach — in which to assert ...
America’s challenge to China’s unilateral claims to the international waterways of the South China Sea is long overdue. Chinese strategists have repeatedly told foreign observers that they believe Beijing has a strategic window — until U.S. President Barack Obama leaves office and before a new president adopts a tougher approach — in which to assert their exceptional claims in maritime Asia. During his current visit to Southeast Asia for regional summits, President Obama should make clear that Chinese coercion to revise Asia’s established order will not succeed on his watch, and deploy more elements of America’s diplomatic and military toolkit to match his words with action.
After years of lobbying by the American military to undertake freedom-of-navigation operations within what China claims to be its territorial waters, the White House finally consented in October to a symbolic show of force that saw a U.S. destroyer sail within 12 miles of a Chinese construction on a reef in the South China Sea. But even that deployment sent mixed messages to both Beijing and America’s Asian allies, as reports circulate that the U.S. Navy invoked “innocent passage,” tacitly recognizing China’s sovereignty over waters around its artificial islets. Such a softly-softly approach is unlikely to alter Beijing’s game plan.
In fact, China has more to lose in any military confrontation than does the United States. America is richer, more powerful, has more allies, and enjoys a more resilient political regime than that monopolized by the Chinese Communist Party. President Xi Jinping must know that a foreign conflict could unleash the kind of nationalism within China that could ultimately target his regime itself; after all, this is how previous dynasties have fallen.
China’s strategy to date — building artificial structures and claiming the surrounding waters as national territory — has been to salami-slice. Beijing has secured incremental gains below the threshold of any actual conflict, while Washington is distracted elsewhere.
It is time for America to call China’s bluff with a more robust and proactive strategy to deter further attempts to redraw the map of Asia. Rather than ceding the initiative to Beijing in the South China Sea through a reactive and purely localized policy, the Obama administration needs to demonstrate that continued military aggression in maritime Asia could endanger China’s wider interests.
One-third of global trade flows through the South China Sea. Control over it would not only threaten East Asia’s economic lifeline; it would position Chinese naval and air power at the mouth of the Indian Ocean. To prevent Chinese revisionism from upending the region’s delicate balance of power, the U.S. and its allies must raise the costs and call into question the benefits of further Chinese encroachments on Asia’s existing territorial order.
Diplomacy can set the stage for this. In 2010, Chinese leaders were shocked when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined with counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to criticize China’s conduct in the South China Sea and assert an American interest in the peaceful resolution of conflicts there. The Philippines has filed a case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague against China’s assertions of sovereignty over its South China Sea territories, and Indonesia is now threatening to do the same over the Chinese threat to the Natuna Islands. Japanese diplomats have worked concertedly to help ASEAN states develop a common position in support of freedom of navigation and other principles of maritime international law. American diplomacy can do more to encourage these trends, reunifying ASEAN around the principle that Asia’s maritime disputes cannot be resolved through force and developing a robust plan of action to enforce that norm.
In the economic realm, Indonesian President Joko Widodo wants his country to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership alongside ASEAN members Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Brunei. Japan, Australia, and New Zealand are TPP signatories; South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan have expressed interest in joining the club. Enacting TPP, which will reinforce an open Asia-Pacific order in which goods, services, and capital flow freely across the region, is a useful counterpoint to China’s efforts to raise barriers to cooperation by militarizing the trade superhighways of Asia’s maritime commons.
Soft power aside, the primary instrument for defending Asia’s fragile status quo must be American military strength. The United States must be more creative with its superior military toolkit in defending the existing liberal order.
First, Washington must back its words with action. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter says U.S. forces will operate wherever international law allows. American forces must systematically challenge China’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea, and its “Nine-Dash Line” in the South China Sea, challenging China’s ability to enforce its questionable claims.
Second, the United States should encourage its allies to undertake similar patrols through Southeast Asia’s maritime commons. Japan and Australia are considering doing so; India’s increasingly powerful navy should do the same as part of its ambitious “Act East” policy. The United States and its allies should undertake joint exercises in the South China Sea’s international waters, challenging China’s claims to control access to them.
Third, the United States should work with its allies to help them deploy the same kind of anti-access and area-denial capabilities that China is developing to exclude foreign forces from Asia’s regional commons. These include missile defenses, anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and more sophisticated patrol and combat aircraft. The goal is not to present China with an offensive military threat, but rather to cast doubt on the viability of aggressive Chinese military operations.
Fourth, the United States must focus more intently on the military dimensions of its pivot to Asia. American forces are concentrated in Japan and South Korea, a legacy of 20th-century conflicts; they should be dispersed across the region. This could include permanent bases in the Philippines and Australia, a more active rotational presence in countries like Vietnam and Malaysia, and an increase in the operations tempo of submarine and surface patrols.
Washington also must invest in systems to defeat China’s anti-access and area-denial capabilities, including directed-energy weapons, stealth bombers and drones, and theater missile defenses. This would enhance deterrence and restore Asian allies’ confidence that the United States will not pursue an over-the-horizon “offshore balancing” strategy that leaves regional partners in the lurch in the event of conflict. The lifting of the sequester caps on defense spending with the recent budget deal in Washington should make targeted enhancements to America’s military posture in Asia more viable.
China’s militarization of the installations it has built in the South China Sea, and its expansive claims to control nearly that entire international waterway, are not simply a challenge to peace and security in Southeast Asia. They are a test of the global rules that underpin the liberal international order. For that reason, Washington should also consider putting China’s broader interests at risk should it continue to militarize the South China Sea.
China’s economic lifeline runs westward across the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf, and eastward across the Pacific, all areas where the U.S. Navy remains predominant. China’s economic health requires an open international trading order and the country’s access to the dollar-based financial system. China’s core interests would be undermined by stronger American military partnership with Taiwan, and greater U.S. support for the rights of restive Chinese citizens in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong.
Geographic proximity may mean China has the upper hand in a localized dispute over the South China Sea. But if leaders in Beijing understand that their interests beyond Southeast Asia are at risk, they may find that the costs to China’s global position outweigh the prospect of narrow gains closer to home. Ironically, China has more to lose than any other country from the threat it is posing to the ground rules of an international system that has — until now — facilitated its rise to prosperity and power.
A version of this article appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images