A critical and early Chinese test of U.S. resolve is likely to come in the South China Sea, where Washington has struggled to respond effectively to assertive Chinese behavior. Enduring U.S. interests — freedom of navigation and overflight, support for the rules-based international order, and the peaceful resolution of disputes — are at risk in the region. U.S. goals to uphold regional alliances and partnerships, defend international rules and norms, and maintain a productive relationship with China remain valid. China has seized the initiative in the South China Sea, however, and the United States needs to revamp its strategy to reverse current trends and escape the trap of reactive and ineffectual policymaking.
U.S. responses to China’s South China Sea activities have been insufficient to alter China’s behavior and have fed the narrative that China is pushing the United States out of the region. Countering China’s efforts has become a key test of perceived U.S. commitment to many in the region. If Chinese coercion goes unchallenged by the United States, it will send a dangerous signal about the strength of the U.S. alliance system and lessen the appeal of the United States as a security partner.
To counter China’s efforts to control the South China Sea, the United States needs a sustainable strategy to bolster its own capabilities, work more effectively with capable allies and partners, and strengthen the regional order. To this end, the new administration should perform an early, top-down, and thorough strategic review to enable greater consistency and effectiveness in U.S. South China Sea policy.
As the new administration sets out to revamp U.S. strategy in the South China Sea, it should keep the following guidelines in mind. These guidelines are excerpted from the January 25, 2017, CSIS report The South China Sea–Some Fundamental Strategic Principles, which was drafted in collaboration with other Asia colleagues at CSIS — Dr. Michael Green, Dr. Zack Cooper, Bonnie Glaser, Andrew Shearer, and Greg Poling. You can read the full report here.