The false choice of war or accommodation in the South China Sea


Why Australia must send its navy to assert the freedom to operate in the South China Sea

I appreciate Hugh White taking the time to critique my essay in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, which recommends a course correction in US strategy to deter and, if necessary, deny Chinese control of the South China Sea. In fact, I agree with core elements of Hugh’s perspective. He’s right that the United States has yet to take seriously the severity of the China challenge, that there has been inadequate debate among America’s leaders and its public about the very real stakes, and that current trends, including deficient US policy, portend a China-dominated region.

But Hugh and I diverge significantly on the question of whether the United States can and should do anything to arrest the slide toward a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia. He offers three reasons why my recommendations for a more robust US policy in the South China Sea would pose little chance for success, while likely risking war.

First, he argues that ‘it is very unlikely that the Southeast Asian claimants would accept American help to fortify their islands, or that other regional allies like Australia or Japan would be willing to play their part’. But US and allied support for rival claimants is not, as Hugh describes, the ‘first’ and ‘second’ steps in my recommended strategy. Rather, I readily acknowledge that regional concerns about economic retribution for standing up to Chinese revisionism is a major obstacle for the United States. That is precisely why I argue that additional non-military measures would be necessary at the outset, including a return of US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, or some equally ambitious initiative on trade and investment that offers regional states an alternative to growing economic dependence on China. I also recommend an informational campaign aimed at shining a brighter light on China’s illegal activities in the South China Sea, creating political space (if not domestic pressure) for governments to push back.

Moreover, this is a deterrence strategy – I argue the United States should move forward with proactively supporting regional states only if China reclaims Scarborough Reef or deploys advanced military capabilities to its new bases in the Spratly Islands. China taking these extraordinary steps would likely be provocative enough to alter political dynamics in Southeast Asia, heightening concerns and opening new opportunities for cooperation. Taken together, the execution of the proposed strategy would occur, as compared to today, in an environment much more conducive to attracting regional support.