The U.S. policy approach to maritime disputes in the South China Sea is primarily diplomatic but not entirely so. While it focuses on creating stability by exhorting all the parties to follow the rules (international law) and explicitly defines how Washington would like conflicts to be solved (peacefully); it does not neglect hard-power initiatives aimed at redressing some of the power imbalance between the ASEAN states of Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei and China. Finally, it incorporates an element of deterrence by not ignoring America’s security alliance with the Philippines.

U.S. Military Access

Importantly, Administration policy recognizes the importance of access for U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia proximate to the South China Sea. To that end it has improved America’s long standing access agreement with Singapore by adding the eventual rotational presence of four frigate class surface warships (currently called Littoral Combat Ships) to the U.S. military footprint in Singapore. Of equal significance, it has made plans to increase U.S. rotational presence in the Philippines. The April 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between Washington and Manila provides for rotational U.S. military presence in Philippine territory. This agreement, which will be in force for 10 years, will permit U.S. forces to have extensive access to Philippine military facilities, including the former U.S. air and naval facilities at Clark air base and Subic Bay naval base. The EDCA also includes in its charter U.S. support for the long-term modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), with the goal of putting a place a “minimum credible defense.”

Access Improves Presence

The access agreements with Singapore and the Philippines are important because they facilitate routine U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia, especially with littoral South China Sea states. Being “present” in a geographic sense equates to proximity. In turn, proximity yields influence and options. It also reassures friends and allies in the region that the United States has not militarily “abandoned” the South China Sea to the PLA. Port visits play an important role engendering presence. For example, over the past few years the frequency of routine U.S. Navy port visits to Philippine has increased steadily. In 2011 there were 44 ship visits, they doubled to 88 in 2012, and grew to 140 in 2013. This number does not include USN vessels that took part in the relief efforts in the aftermath of super-typhoon Yolanda. While port visits to Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia are not nearly as frequent as the Philippines, the combined total, assuming a normal visit of 3-4 days, means there is a U.S. naval presence either underway in the South China Sea or in-port somewhere around the South China Sea every day. This is an important visible demonstration of U.S. interests in that vital waterway.

Access Facilitates Exercises

Another way to increase both presence and improve partner capacity is through exercises. Improving partner capacity is an important aspect of Washington’s South China Sea policy agenda. For 20 years now, the U.S. Navy has organized a sequential series of bilateral exercises with South East Asian partners. Under the direction of the Commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 73, stationed in Singapore, this multi-month long exercise known as Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT), conducts annual bilateral training with naval forces of Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand. Starting in the spring of each year, a U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps task group spends time with each participant country. This rolling series of exercises goes on for around seven months. The schedule of events and the nature of the training are tailored to the desires of each participant nation.

The exercises focus on operational proficiency and given the relative low-profile that has been a hallmark of the CARAT process, the size and breadth of the exercise series can be surprising. The 2014 CARAT “season” which ran from May to November involved more than 40 U.S. and regional partner ships, 50 U.S. and international maritime patrol aircraft and embarked helicopters, and totaled more than 10,000 personnel. Importantly for South China Sea littoral participants, training with U.S. Marines in actual amphibious operations was part of the exercise program. Additionally, the most recent CARAT included U.S. Navy Seabees, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians, medical professionals, and diving experts. CARAT 2014 involved more than 150 days of interaction that included both planning conferences, shore based seminars and the actual operational exercises themselves. It should be noted that in addition to CARAT the U.S. military also conducts separate bilateral exercises with a number of Southeast Asian nations.


Over the years CARAT participation has grown as more Southeast and South Asian nations have asked to become participants. As impressive as the CARAT process has become, one way to increase U.S. presence in the South China Sea while improving partner capacity would be to increase the duration of the CARAT exercise segments with Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Reaching an agreement with Vietnam to participate in CARAT would also be very helpful. Inviting participation from other Asian maritime states, such as Japan, Australia, South Korea and possibly India should also be considered, since it would illustrate that other Asian maritime states are also concerned about stability in the South China Sea.

That said, it would not be wise to overtly militarize the U.S. approach to the South China Sea. Diplomatic and trade initiatives should remain Washington’s primary policy approaches. China has been at pains to minimize the direct involvement of the PLA in its efforts to enforce its writ in the South China Sea. This does not mean that the PLA Navy has not also been routinely present in the South China Sea because it has. It too conducts routine exercises and daily presence operations that include resupply of PLA garrisons in the Spratlys and is normally “just over the horizon” in support of its coast guard. Increased U.S. presence, especially air and naval, will reassure friends and allies and indicate that the U.S. is committed to a long term posture in Southeast Asia dedicated to improving the maritime security of the region.

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.