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.
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.
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. 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.
As the new administration sets out to revamp U.S. strategy in the South China Sea, it should keep the following guidelines in mind. These guidelines are excerpted from the January 25, 2017, CSIS report The South China Sea–Some Fundamental Strategic Principles, which was drafted in collaboration with other Asia colleagues at CSIS — Dr. Michael Green, Dr. Zack Cooper, Bonnie Glaser, Andrew Shearer, and Greg Poling. You can read the full report here.
- 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 among 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 the 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 long-standing 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.
(This post appeared in the January 26, 2017, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)