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The United States, its allies, and its partners face an intertwined series of challenges in the South China Sea. This nested series of issues is most clearly manifest in China’s recent (and continuing) island-creation and expansion in the South China Sea.
China’s island-dredging is itself only a symptom of the real problem: a significant power vacuum in the South China Sea.
The United States has largely reduced its presence in those waters over the past 20 years. While the overall capabilities of the U.S. Navy are increasing with each new ship, the newer, more versatile platforms are more expensive. In DoD terminology, the Navy has prioritized capability over capacity, with the result being the reduction by more than 20 percent in total Navy ships since 1995. Combined with demands on the U.S. Navy to be present in the waters around the Middle East, and the United States is left with fewer “presence days” elsewhere in the world.
In terms of hard power, Southeast Asia’s littoral states’ maritime—navy and coast guard—capabilities are extremely limited. In addition, they are reluctant to take actions that would put them in direct opposition to China. The reluctance may be due, at least in part, to the fact that China is the top trading partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Even considering countries’ willingness to pursue their interests according to international law, the Philippines’ much-noted arbitration case (which was initially highly controversial among ASEAN countries) is only to determine what maritime features are contestable in court—not who owns them, but “can they be owned?”