Deterring Chinese Coercion in the South China Sea


What steps should the U.S. take next?

Realizing the strategic importance of the South China Sea (SCS) in its “rebalancing” policy, the United States in 2015 took several specific actions to challenge China’s maritime claims in the region. Doctrinally, the Defense Department released the Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy, which described China as the major source of instability, and articulated U.S. efforts to stabilize the SCS. Operationally, Washington deployed the USS Lassen (DDG-82) to transit inside the 12-nautical miles of five features including Subi Reef, and flew B52 bombers near a group of Chinese-built artificial islands in the Spratlys.

To some extent, these steps show that the U.S. has tried to adopt a more proactive posture in the SCS. However, they will not be sufficient to deter Chinese coercion in the region. Further action is needed.

Certainly the U.S. needs to make some careful calculations when it comes to policy dealing with a would-be regional hegemon, but it also needs to be decisive and timely. The concept of “fly and sail” was first mentioned in May 2015, and was repeatedly announced by top U.S. leaders at various levels (here, here, here), but the White House agonized for too long before deciding to send the USS Lassen on its mission on October 27, 2015. Such a slow response is unacceptable for a global power, and prompts widespread charges of American weakness. It gives China the opportunity to mastermind its reaction to ensure that U.S. efforts are in vain. For example, in response to the “fly and sail” campaign, China has recently conducted a series of civilian test flights to the Fiery Cross Reef, violating the Convention on International Civil Aviation and the sovereignty of other coastal states, including Vietnam, and paving the way for the future militarization in the SCS.

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