The South China Sea Showdown: What Should America (and the Region) Do About It?


The organizers of this gathering requested a “provocative” presentation. They knew not what they were asking! I will do my best to oblige.

Regional politics underwent a phase change last July, when jurists in The Hague struck down China’s claim to “indisputable sovereignty” over some 80-90 percent of a major waterway. The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling constituted a diplomatic defeat of epic proportions for China.

Unfortunately, the decision changes little on the ground. Sadly but unsurprisingly, China’s refusal to abide by it shoves the region back into the hardscrabble domain of power politics. If law is not enough, seafaring states must try to deter China through some mix of diplomatic, economic, and military measures. If we work together and keep at it, we just may succeed. China is not all-powerful, nor is it likely to be.

This runs against the usual tale of China’s unstoppable rise to world power, a tale that’s popular in places like Beijing. If China’s rise is fate, and if it’s linear, what point is there in competing against it? But this tale runs counter to the paradoxical logic of strategy, which sees antagonists grapple constantly for strategic advantage. There are ups and downs to strategic competition. No outcome is predestined. This narrative also overlooks demographic, economic, and other challenges that will ultimately weigh on China—constraining its physical might or compelling the leadership to siphon resources from other high priorities to remain militarily strong.

Since there has been a phase shift, it’s time to take stock of the situation anew—keeping ourselves abreast of the times. So let’s spend the next few minutes surveying the strategic terrain and considering some ways to manage it. I make no pretense of saying everything about this very complex situation in a few short minutes.