U.S. Credibility in the South China Sea


China’s growing presence in the South China Sea is raising doubts about the U.S. policy there.

China continues to militarize the South China Sea, with the manifest intention of making its claim of sovereignty thereto impossible to challenge. China has made clear that it does not plan to accept a likely unfavorable decision, forthcoming in a month or so, by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Moreover, China has so far refused to discuss any sort of multilateral negotiations over the many overlapping, conflicting territorial claims.

Nations who contest China’s claims as violations of their own sovereignty are left having to figure out how to confront China’s increasingly threatening military posture in the South China Sea. Must the Philippines, Vietnam, and other contestants either accede to Chinese sovereignty over the Sea or fight to defend their interests? If, indeed, those are the only options, then the choice seems clear. None of the contesting countries can overcome China’s military might, and they must eventually concede the South China Sea to China and hope for the best. Rather steadily, however, Vietnam and the Philippines have moved beyond that simple choice to another option of greater global significance: strengthening military ties with the United States.

By drawing closer to the U.S., China’s Southeast Asian adversaries seek to acquire some degree of balance in the region, so as to dissuade China from brazen invocations of military might to enforce its sweeping claims. Which is to say, they hope a more visible, active American military presence will deter China. There is no doubt that the United States has, for the time being, adequate military resources to more than balance anything China can put into the South China Sea. But, as aficionados of the Cold War will recall, a fundamental component of deterrence is credibility. It is one thing to possess assets, it is another to convince an adversary of your willingness to use them, and another still to convince friends of your willingness to use them on their behalf. A further step requires that your friend believes that your adversary is intimidated by your posture. It is this last element that seems to be at play in the South China Sea. The United States seeks to assure the Philippines and Vietnam, perhaps others, that China will be sufficiently intimidated by growing U.S. involvement to move toward more reasonable, more accommodating policies, and accept the need to resolve the conflict through serious multilateral negotiation. There is little to indicate that the approach is working.