China can increasingly project power throughout the South China Sea thanks to its new dual-use bases in the Spratly Islands and upgraded facilities in the Paracels. Beijing remains firmly committed to securing extensive but ill-defined “historic rights” throughout the nine-dash line in contravention of international law. The new U.S. administration, meanwhile, has yet to articulate a strategy for the South China Sea, leaving big questions about its commitment to the region. And except for Hanoi, Southeast Asian claimants’ reactions to recent developments have ranged from defeatist in Manila to intentionally oblivious in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur.

Despite the lack of major Chinese escalations in the last nine months, the dynamics of the South China Sea today tilt more heavily than ever in Beijing’s favor (amounting to a strategic masterstroke by Beijing). At this point, analysts must ask whether the United States and like-minded countries have already lost the fight. Is it time for Washington to walk away and leave Southeast Asian claimants to strike whatever unequal deals they can with China?

The Stakes

A major reason for perceived U.S. fecklessness, and the accompanying heartburn in the region, is that most Americans still don’t understand why exactly Washington should care about the South China Sea. Even within government, the answer is not the same across (or even within) agencies. How can the United States and its partners pursue a winning strategy, or recognize defeat, if they can’t agree on what counts as victory?

The Obama administration maintained a more-or-less consistent list of U.S. interests in the South China Sea: defense of the rules-based order, preservation of regional security (including the safety of allies), and freedom of navigation. Unfortunately, as with much of the administration’s Asia policy, the Obama team proved strong on strategic vision but weaker on explanation and implementation. Just as the pivot came to be defined by security initiatives, despite so much time spent on economic, diplomatic, and socio-cultural efforts, the South China Sea discussion has been dominated by a false narrative about U.S.-China military competition.

The South China Sea disputes are not a bilateral U.S.-China issue and they cannot be solved by some grand bargain between Washington and Beijing. The South China Sea is also not primarily a military standoff, and does not have a military solution. This is not to say that the People’s Liberation Army does not see a strong strategic imperative at work in the South China Sea disputes, or that China’s growing power-projection capabilities from its artificial islands would not complicate U.S. warfighting in a potential conflict. These are contributing factors in the disputes, as are competition for resources, critical trade routes through the waters, and many other issues. But they are not the root causes of the South China Sea disputes, nor are they the prime interests of the United States and like-minded countries.

As Bill Hayton has persuasively argued, the South China Sea disputes are really about competing nationalisms, and especially a Chinese narrative of entitlement that flies in the face of historic fact, international law, and the interests of its neighbors. This sense of entitlement, and China’s determination to pursue it by any means necessary, directly threatens U.S. interests that extend well beyond the unfettered ability of the U.S. Navy to operate in the South China Sea. This is about the international system writ large—the rules-based order so often invoked by the Obama administration—in which states are equal under mutually agreed-upon rules and norms, and in which negotiation and arbitration have replaced coercion and armed force as acceptable means of dispute resolution. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and all the customary international law underpinning it, are key parts of that system. They would be severely undermined by the realization of Chinese claims in the South China Sea; other nations would quickly realize that they were being disadvantaged by abiding by the strictures of UNCLOS when China was not.

The Verdict

Unfortunately, the rules-based order is abstract, and it doesn’t help sell newspapers. Military support from the United States and regional middle powers, including Australia, Japan, and India, is critical to keep the Southeast Asian claimants from being steamrolled by China. The United States must take point in deterring Chinese aggression and other major escalations, as it did to prevent construction at Scarborough Shoal last spring. Partner nations must seek to build up the capacity of Southeast Asian navies and coast guards so that they can maintain access to contested waters in the face of ever-increasing Chinese pressure. But these security efforts amount to treading water—they are not an endgame.

Ultimately “victory” in the South China Sea for the United States and its partners would require convincing China to bring its claims into conformity with international law and behave fairly toward its neighbors. That is a tall order—it would require an international diplomatic and legal campaign aimed at undermining the legitimacy of Chinese claims and inflicting reputational damage on Beijing. Most importantly, it would require long-term commitment; naming and shaming China into moderating its claims could take a decade or longer. China is not immune to international pressure or the opportunity costs of being an international outlaw, but it is extremely resistant.

The United States and the Philippines were tantalizingly close to rallying an international coalition behind such an effort. On the eve of Manila’s legal victory in July 2016, a significant plurality of the nations of the world were calling for Chinese compliance with the outcome of the arbitration. But that coalition fell apart in the wake of President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to abandon international pressure in the hopes that Beijing would respond to a more conciliatory policy. His decision was largely ideological, but it was bolstered by arguments that the United States would not defend the Philippines against China. This was a self-inflicted wound that the Obama administration could have avoided by clarifying that the two countries’ mutual defense treaty applies to Filipino troops and vessels in disputed waters.

While Duterte holds out his olive branch and the Trump administration focuses on other issues, China continues to consolidate its gains. Ports and accompanying infrastructure have led to a significant increase in the number of Chinese ships in the southern half of the nine-dash line. While this vanguard steadily encroaches on the waters of its neighbors, China grows ever more capable of intervening to prevent Southeast Asian states from using the waters and seabed guaranteed to them under international law.

If nothing changes, China will establish de facto control over the water, airspace, and resources of the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy will still conduct operations in those contested waters, ignoring harassment by its Chinese counterparts, but that will be little comfort to the Southeast Asian claimants. Vietnam may continue to oppose that new reality, but others will eventually accommodate to facts on the ground. As a result, the international system and the regional order in Asia will be permanently altered in ways severely damaging to U.S. national interests.

So, have the United States and like-minded states already lost? No. But they are losing, and quickly.

To change that, Washington first needs to recognize the stakes involved, and the Trump administration needs to articulate a clear and forceful policy to defend U.S. interests, especially the rules-based order, in the South China Sea. Second, the U.S. government needs to seize the opportunity when the Duterte government realizes that Beijing is not going to make the concessions it hopes, perhaps with the start of China’s annual fishing moratorium in areas including Scarborough Shoal on May 1. To lay the groundwork for this, the Trump administration should offer a long-overdue clarification that the U.S.-Philippine treaty covers Filipino forces in the South China Sea, since these waters are part of the Pacific under Article V of the treaty. Then the hard work of rebuilding international opposition to Chinese claims can begin.

About Gregory Poling

Gregory B. Poling is senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS. He oversees research on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific, with a focus on the maritime domain and the countries of Southeast Asia. His research interests include the South China Sea disputes, democratization in Southeast Asia, and Asian multilateralism.