What America Can Do to Avoid War in the South China Sea


Here are some helpful steps both Washington and Beijing should take.

Is the world at a point of no return in the South China Sea? Judging by the comments coming from the mouths of senior U.S. and Chinese officials, that would certainly seem like the reality. Both sides have dug into their maximalist positions, with Beijing viewing the expansive blue waters off the coast of East Asia as sovereign territory and Washington regarding China’s militarization of the area as a transparent rewriting of the international rules.

Neither side is backing down —nor does either country seem interested in a compromise. During an interview on November 13, Vice President Mike Pence was asked about China’s failure to meet American demands over unfair trade practices, political interference, and military maneuvers in the South China Sea. Pence’s response was “Then so be it… We [the U.S.] are here to stay.” The People’s Liberation Army-Navy, it seems, can try to bully its Southeast Asian neighbors and construct artificial islands with anti-ship missile batteries all it wants. But, as far as Washington is concerned, America will continue flying and sailing in the open seas whether Chinese President Xi Jinping likes it or not.

It’s all fun and games, of course, until someone gets hurt. It was less than two months ago when a Chinese destroyer came dangerously close ( forty-five yards ) to the USS Decatur, a brazen challenge from the Chinese Navy that could have resulted in a disaster at sea if U.S. sailors didn’t avoid a collision. An incident was fortunately prevented, but the fact American and Chinese warships and aircraft are increasingly coming into close proximity in the waters and airspace of the South China Sea means that it’s possible the two largest economies and military spenders could succumb to what Harvard University’s Graham Allison calls the “ Thucydides’s Trap .” That Trap is a scenario whereby a rising power and an established power seeking to stay on top go down the rabbit hole of a full-blown confrontation. Moreover, as Allison has written, conflict can even occur when business-as-usual prevails, often through miscalculation, fear, paranoia, and competition.

As unbelievable as a war between the United States and China may seem at present, history shows that the unbelievable can happen.

The South China Sea is not at all ripe for a final settlement. But the least Washington and Beijing can do is brainstorm about procedures and techniques that aim to promote more predictability and ensure another incident at sea doesn’t trigger a shooting war.

The United States has made it abundantly clear through meetings with Chinese officials and public comments that freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea will continue. For better or worse, Chinese officials have made it equally clear that they see these same exercises as a hostile attempt by an aggressive superpower to limit China’s flexibility in what it claims as Chinese territory.