The South China Sea – Some Fundamental Strategic Principles

With the incoming administration likely to grapple early with South China Sea issues, the CSIS Southeast Asia Program, directed by Dr. Amy Searight, worked in collaboration with other Asia colleagues at CSIS—Dr. Michael Green, Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair; Dr. Zack Cooper, Fellow, Japan Chair; Bonnie Glaser, Senior Adviser for Asia and Director, China Power Project; Andrew Shearer, Senior Adviser on Asia-Pacific Security; and Greg Poling, Director Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative—to provide the analytical context and some fundamental principles that should guide strategic thinking on South China Sea policy.

A critical and early Chinese test of U.S. resolve is likely to come in the South China Sea, where Washington has struggled to respond effectively to assertive Chinese behavior. Enduring U.S. interests—freedom of navigation and overflight, support for the rules-based international order, and the peaceful resolution of disputes—are at risk in the region. U.S. goals to uphold regional alliances and partnerships, defend international rules and norms, and maintain a productive relationship with China remain valid. China has seized the initiative in the South China Sea, however, and the United States needs to revamp its strategy to reverse current trends and escape the trap of reactive and ineffectual policymaking. To this end, the new administration should perform an early, top-down, and thorough strategic review to enable greater consistency and effectiveness in U.S. South China Sea policy.

China is undertaking a persistent, long-term effort to establish control over the South China Sea. Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has undertaken more assertive policies that have greatly improved Beijing’s position in the South China Sea. China remains uncompromising on sovereignty, has increased its capability to enforce its de facto control in disputed areas, and has sought to advance its claims while staying below the threshold for direct military conflict with the United States.

  • China has steadily built capabilities and infrastructure, most notably military facilities on artificial islands, that enable greater control of the South China Sea. The growing size and capability of the Chinese air force, navy, and coast guard allow Beijing to consistently monitor and exercise de facto control over most of the South China Sea. China’s island outposts will increase this advantage as Chinese aircraft, ships, and paramilitary vessels will be able to rest and resupply in the southern portion of the South China Sea.

  • China is already providing indications of how it might act when it controls the South China Sea. China has harassed U.S. Navy ships operating in the South China Sea, warned military flights to stay away from its artificial islands, and recently seized a U.S. drone operating in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. These actions suggest that China might undermine freedom of navigation and overflight, principles of fundamental importance to the United States.

  • China has shown it is willing to accept substantial risk to achieve its ends, and has engaged in outright coercion against weaker neighbors like the Philippines and Vietnam. U.S. allies and partners in the region are drawing lessons from Chinese coercive behavior and the limited U.S. response to it, and some are beginning to doubt U.S. resolve and adjust their foreign policies in response.

U.S. responses to China’s South China Sea activities have been insufficient to alter China’s behavior and have fed the narrative that China is pushing the United States out of the region. Countering China’s efforts has become a key test of perceived U.S. commitment to many in the region. If Chinese coercion goes unchallenged by the United States, it will send a dangerous signal about the strength of the U.S. alliance system and lessen the appeal of the United States as a security partner.

  • The United States has been largely successful at preserving its own freedom of action and deterring outright Chinese aggression in the South China Sea through routine presence operations. U.S. access to the South China Sea is coming under increasing threat as Chinese power increases, but can be preserved if the United States maintains a sufficient military advantage over China.

  • The United States has been less successful in supporting local partners as they resist Chinese coercion. The United States has an interest in seeing that these partners maintain their strategic autonomy, but capacity building efforts to help them resist coercion are not keeping pace with China’s growing capabilities. This puts more pressure on Washington to intervene and U.S. allies and partners in Asia are watching carefully and drawing conclusions about U.S. commitment and staying power in the region.

  • The United States also faces a challenge in enforcing international law in the South China Sea. U.S. military advantage is of limited utility in this area and Washington has struggled to convince local partners to join in freedom of navigation operations. The United States needs to consider a wider variety of non-military responses to China’s efforts to control the South China Sea, and more effectively build a local coalition to support these responses.

To counter China’s efforts to control the South China Sea, the United States needs a sustainable strategy to bolster its own capabilities, work more effectively with capable allies and partners, and strengthen the regional order.

  • Preserving the U.S. military edge is key to maintaining the U.S. position in Asia. The United States should continue to prioritize military presence in the Asia-Pacific at the same time as it invests in key capabilities, such as long-range precision strike, undersea warfare, cyber/space systems, and other capabilities that will preserve the U.S. ability to deter Chinese aggression.
  • The United States can do more to leverage its alliances in Asia to raise the costs of Chinese efforts to undermine the regional order. Allied efforts to support U.S. force posture in the region will remain vital, but the United States should also expect allies to make greater contributions in responding to Chinese coercion. Close allies such as Australia and Japan have a great deal to offer in terms of capability and capacity, and should be encouraged to do more.

Guidelines for a South China Sea Strategy

As the new administration sets out to revamp U.S. strategy in the South China Sea, it should keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Pursue Deterrence and Cooperation Simultaneously

Although Chinese cooperation is necessary to address some regional and global issues—such as North Korea’s belligerent behavior and climate change—the United States should not be held hostage by concerns that a more robust deterrence strategy will thwart bilateral cooperation. Any temptation to alter U.S. policies in the South China Sea to preserve cooperation with China in other areas is unnecessary and potentially counterproductive. Cooperation on areas of shared interest is important not only to the United States, but also to China.

U.S. leaders should not be afraid of tension in the U.S.-China relationship. The United States can stand firm on its principles and deter China from undermining the regional order while maintaining a productive relationship. Giving ground on vital interests in Asia will not encourage greater cooperation on global issues. Instead, perceptions of weakness may encourage leaders in Beijing to embrace more assertive behavior. In short, adopting a more robust deterrence approach need not prevent cooperation that is in the interests of both countries.

  • Adopt Consistent and Sustainable Policies and Messages

The new administration should issue clear and consistent strategic messages, since inconsistent articulation of the objectives of the rebalance strategy has caused confusion in China and amongst U.S. allies and partners. In particular, shifting explanations for how the United States will manage China’s rising power and influence—along with the military-heavy implementation of the rebalance—have exacerbated suspicions that Washington seeks to contain Beijing’s rise.

Inconsistent messaging and policies—including on freedom of navigation and routine presence operations—have also led to confusion in the region. The new administration should provide authoritative explanations of these operations and not alter their schedule in response to Chinese pressure. Moving forward, freedom of navigation and routine presence operations should be executed on a regular basis to demonstrate U.S. resolve to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. While consistency in U.S. messaging and policy execution is important, it should be balanced by carefully calculated unpredictability in operations and tactics to prevent Beijing from becoming overly confident in its ability to anticipate U.S. reactions.

  • Expand the Policy Toolkit

U.S. policy in the South China Sea has been overly reliant on military options, which may not always be the most effective response. Diplomatic, informational, legal, and economic responses are currently underrepresented in U.S. China policy, and their incorporation into the policy toolkit will be important for successfully dissuading China over the long-term. For example, targeted sanctions on Chinese companies involved in destabilizing activities could be considered. The United States has leverage over China in areas not directly related to South China Sea and may have to consider using or threatening to use these tools to stabilize the regional order.

  • Reinvigorate Engagement with Allies and Partners

The United States should intensify capacity building efforts with allies and partners to improve their ability to resist Chinese coercion. Successful capacity building efforts will allow Southeast Asian states to better help themselves, bolstering deterrence against low-level Chinese coercion and allowing the U.S. military to focus more on deterring high-level contingencies. To facilitate capacity building, Washington should preserve regional defense relationships while recognizing that the ability of the United States to partner with frontline states depends on their cooperation and adherence to good governance and human rights.

The United States has several enduring advantages that make regional states continue to seek it out as the security partner of choice, including the world’s best military, high favorability ratings in most local populations, and a less threatening foreign policy than that of China. Given these advantages, Washington can afford to focus on the long game in Asia, confident that Chinese adventurism is likely to push many states to turn to the United States for support.

  • Maintain a Principled Position on Disputes

The longstanding U.S. position that it takes no position on sovereignty disputes over land features in the South China Sea, while insisting that these disputes be resolved in a peaceful fashion and in accordance with international law, is sound and should be maintained.

This principled stand allows the United States to defend its interests without embroiling itself in the murky sovereignty claims at the heart of the South China Sea dispute. Not taking a position on sovereignty allows the United States to flexibly intervene in the South China Sea to defend its interests and international rules and norms, while undercutting Chinese attempts to paint U.S. actions as a threat to Beijing’s sovereignty. Other claimant states welcome U.S. involvement precisely because Washington does not favor one claimant’s territorial ambitions over those of the others.

Geoffrey Hartman

Amy Searight