A recent CNA Corporation report assessed current U.S. policy on the South China Sea and found it to be comprehensive and balanced. United States policy focuses on creating stability by exhorting all parties to follow the rules of international law. It also explicitly defines how Washington would like conflicts to be solved. Moreover, it includes hard-power initiatives, such as rotationally stationing U.S. Navy warships in Singapore, the new military access agreement with the Philippines, the partial lifting of the arms embargo against Vietnam, and collaboration with Manila on improving its naval capacity. These are aimed at improving U.S. naval and air posture close to the South China Sea as well as redressing some of the capabilities imbalances between the Philippines, Vietnam, and China. Finally, it incorporates elements of traditional deterrence by affirming America’s security alliance with the Philippines.

On the other hand, U.S. policy implicitly acknowledges that the South China Sea is not the central strategic element in the overall U.S.-China relationship. The South China Sea was clearly not the centerpiece of the November 2014 Obama-Xi summit in Beijing: climate change, North Korea, Taiwan, trade and cyber issues were the focuses of this exchange. Our CNA study endorses this issue hierarchy, and argues that, in practice, U.S. South China Sea policy should not be overwhelmingly anti-Chinese. The United States should criticize Chinese behavior, along with the behavior of American friends and allies, when warranted. Finally, when it comes to the South China Sea, Washington should not bluff. In other words it should not announce policies it is not prepared to back-up.

The United States should reinforce its existing policy that international law is the basis for rules-based stability by issuing a comprehensive white paper on the various aspects of international law that are being abused by China and other claimants in the South China Sea. Because the focus on international law has been such a centerpiece of U.S. policy, this authoritative document should be signed by the Secretary of State and given appropriate publicity.

U.S. officials have publicly supported the Philippines’ request for arbitration, but if the arbitral tribunal rules that it does not have jurisdiction over this case, it will be a major setback and quash hopes that international law can be the basis for shaping the behavior of parties involved in South China Sea disputes. The Department of State should publicly highlight the importance of allowing the Philippines to have “its day in court,” for the sake of resolving the Philippines-PRC dispute and for the important precedent this arbitration may set.

Among several other policy recommendations in the report, our findings support efforts to help South Sea littoral states help themselves through improvements in surveillance, command and control, and policing of their respective maritime domains. The United States also needs to be completely committed to a very long term, dedicated effort to improve the Armed Forces of the Philippine’s maritime capabilities. Both sides need to agree on what constitutes an AFP “minimum credible deterrent,” and enact a plan to achieve it.

When it comes to U.S. posture, our CNA report recommends that naval and air presence in the South China Sea should be a visible, daily occurrence. To that end, increasing the duration, a defacto increase in operational presence, of U.S. exercises with South China Sea littoral states and expanding them by inviting participation from other Asian maritime states, such as Japan, Australia, South Korea, and possibly India, will illustrate that other maritime states are concerned about stability in the South China Sea.

Finally, Washington should ensure that planned U.S. military posture and capability improvements in East Asia are portrayed as symbols of reassurance and stability-oriented presence and are not characterized as attempts to confront China directly. Policymakers should emphasize that the objective of the military portion of the administration’s Rebalance strategy is to ensure that the United States can fulfil security responsibilities to U.S. allies and friends because it is capable of assured access whenever and wherever it may be required.

About Michael McDevitt

Rear Admiral (Ret) Michael McDevitt is a Senior Fellow in Strategic Studies at the Center for Naval Analyses. During his Navy career, Rear Admiral McDevitt held four at-sea commands, including command of an aircraft carrier battle group.