Washington is losing ground in the South China Sea, and risks making the situation lasting unless America imposes “real” strategic costs to China.
Part one of this two-part series provided strategic perspectives and context to the recent uptick in tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) following a year of relative calm since the International Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague handed down its historic and sweeping award on maritime entitlements in the SCS last July. With this backdrop, part two will now examine ways and means the United States can regain the strategic initiative, recover the high ground of regional influence, and stave off losing in the SCS.
How America Can Reverse The Tide in the South China Sea
Washington is losing ground in the SCS and greater Southeast Asia, and risks making the situation lasting unless it imposes “real” strategic costs to Beijing (and conversely accepts own strategic costs). Following are some ways and means to change the trajectory:
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Embrace Strategic Competition. When two powers, one dominant (United States) and one rising (China), with competing regional strategies extend into one’s another security and economic spheres, the geopolitical landscape is ripe for friction. This competition is not to be feared but to be expected and embraced. Hence, play the Chinese game of “go” and not the Western game of “chess” in the SCS.
Continue to reframe the SCS as a strategic problem that directly involves the United States obliges China to act accordingly. Explicitly conveying to Beijing that the SCS is a U.S. national interest, and making the SCS a “bilateral” U.S.-China issue may lead Beijing to rethink and recalibrate its strategy. Put simply, turn the table and make Beijing decide which is more important to its national interests – the SCS or its strategic relationship with Washington.
In this vein, the U.S. should stay firm and consistent to stated SCS positions – no additional island-building; no further militarization; no use of force or coercion by any of the claimants to resolve sovereignty disputes or change the status-quo of disputed SCS features; substantive and legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) that would promote a rules-based framework for managing and regulating the behavior of relevant countries in the SCS; and permissibility of military activities in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in accordance with United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Otherwise, deferring to Beijing on aforesaid issues only reinforce the perception in Beijing that Washington can be influenced and maneuvered with little effort. And that’s a game China will win time and time again.
Maintain U.S. Attention and Focus. In the coming years, the “most effective counterbalance or check” to China’s campaign of tailored coercion in the SCS will be continued U.S. attention and focus in the form of integrated and calibrated soft and hard deterrent powers (multilateral diplomacy, information dominance, military presence, and economic integration) to reassure allies and partners; demonstrate resolve and commitment; enhance force posture, capabilities, and readiness; bolster economic ties with multilateral and bilateral trade agreements; and dominate the strategic narratives. All in all, if done right, these synchronized and complementary lines of effort will impose the largest strategic costs to Beijing.