Beijing may be playing coy over whether it considers the South China Sea part of its sovereign territory, but the country’s actions indicate that its preferred outcome is Chinese sovereignty within the “nine-dash line.” Meanwhile, the Obama Administration’s vacillation over how to challenge Beijing’s assertiveness in the region undermines U.S. policy to shape China’s rise in positive directions. The resulting dispute between the Pentagon and the White House over enforcing freedom of navigation has led to a situation—as Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear testified to Congress—where the U.S. Navy and Air Force have not challenged the territoriality of China’s artificial islands since 2012.
Washington’s unwillingness to enforce the rules it espouses undermines a core tenet of U.S. policy toward China. If the United States will not enforce the policy it espouses, then the time is ripe to reconsider the assumptions and options for U.S. policy towards China. Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea forces the United States to go beyond consideration of American interests in the region towards actively defending those interests.