Protecting The South China Sea


Vietnam’s Prime Minister shakes hands with the Secretary General of United Nations, next to Malaysia’s Prime Minister during the 7th ASEAN-United Nations Summit last November. (ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)

What is the best strategy for addressing China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea?

China is engaging in a subtle campaign of territorial encroachment in the South China Sea. To address it, Washington should maximize diplomatic support for a negotiated agreement on rights to the disputed land formations and waters while deterring Chinese attempts to settle the debate through military or economic coercion.

Diplomatically, Washington should continue to insist China discuss the issue with the ASEAN regional forum, rather than attempt to intimidate each member bilaterally. Washington should also continue encouraging Japan, Australia and India to increase involvement in the region and back the position of ASEAN.

Militarily, the U.S. needs to improve its position in the South China Sea and generally vis-a-vis China. Beijing is rapidly approaching a level of military capability at which it can challenge the U.S. in a short-duration local war, given its proximity to the locations of likely conflict. To dampen that trend, the U.S. should increase military spending, expand its air, sea and ground forces, position more of these forces in the region and harden its bases against a surprise Chinese attack. It should also seek additional rotational, as well as enduring, bases along the South China Sea where none now exist. Washington should also increase military aid to the Philippines, its one local treaty ally, to enable it to resist Chinese encroachments.

While military improvements are important, ASEAN is more worried about Chinese economic coercion. To mitigate this threat, Washington should continue efforts to link the economies of the Asia-Pacific to provide alternatives sources of supply and demand for each nation’s economy, should China attempt to cutoff trade with an offending nation. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a step forward in this respect. Washington should look to further link the small ASEAN economics with large ones, such as India’s, while securing alternate locations to procure key materials.
Read more: