The World Is Waking Up to Beijing’s South China Sea Ambitions


In recent weeks, there have been several commentaries reporting a temporary new norm in the South China Sea (SCS) – realpolitik’s triumph over moralpolitik and the rapid decline of regional U.S. soft power. But current developments suggest otherwise. Years of ill-advised U.S. acquiescence and accommodation (strategic patience and wishful thinking) in the SCS appear to be over for now.

There indeed seems to be a new norm emerging in the SCS. But it is more reflective of the new muscular U.S. National Security Strategy and U.S. National Defense Strategy that call for an embrace of strategic great power competition with China than of a decline of U.S. influence in the region.

Many countries are now firmly pushing back against Chinese unilateral expansionism in the SCS. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly declared that he was ready and willing to go to war with China over SCS resources. A prominent Taiwanese think tank has proposed leasing Taiwan-occupied Taiping Island to the U.S. military. And at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, the United States, India, Vietnam, France and the United Kingdom all spoke strongly against China’s assertive and destabilizing actions in the SCS.

These words are being backed up by actions.

Washington disinvited Beijing to the 2018 Rim of the Pacific naval exercise on the grounds that Chinese actions in the SCS run counter to international norms and the pursuit of free and open seas. U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) and presence operations in the SCS continue, and US defense officials are reportedly considering a more assertive program that could include longer patrols, more ships and closer surveillance of Chinese facilities.