A New Approach to U.S. Policy in the South China Sea
United States policy in the South China Sea has failed. China continues to build and militarize artificial ‘islands’ throughout the region, and longtime U.S. allies and partners are suffering. China is the school yard bully, forcing the Philippines, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian nations to surrender their ‘lunch money’ in the form of sovereignty and vast potential resources. China’s aggression in the South China Sea disrupts development, is an assault on the rules-based international order, and is damaging U.S. national security.
Tensions in the South China Sea exploded in 2012, when the Chinese ships forced Filipino fisherman from the Scarborough Shoal. A standoff ensued. China’s military has since occupied and fortified more than a dozen other contested islands, reefs, and rocks. U.S. policy has been an ineffective mix of eggshell diplomacy and naval chest-thumping. It needs to be replaced by an approach based on direct, principled American leadership and close cooperation with regional partners.
The U.S. should elevate the South China Sea issue to the top of the U.S.-China agenda. Some $5.3 trillion in global trade – including $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade – flows through the South China Sea. It accounts for 12 percent of the world’s fish harvest. An estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie untapped underneath it. Because this region is clearly so critical to the global economy, America should make helping her allies and partners stand up to China a higher priority.
The U.S. should fully assist the Philippines in enforcing its sovereignty in the Scarborough Shoal. Last year, the Permanent Court of Arbitration awarded in favor of the Philippines in its territorial dispute case against China.
Instead of boiler-plate political statements, we should run a full-court diplomatic press. Instead of impotent freedom of navigation operations, we should offer to conduct joint naval patrols with the Philippines, increase U.S. Navy persistent presence, and build a regional task force to thwart illegal maritime activity. This would force Beijing to rethink its building of military islands, and go a long way to mend our broken relationship with the Philippines – one of our oldest and closest allies.
The U.S should rally support for the Permanent Court of Arbitration process. Five other nations – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam – also have ongoing territorial disputes among themselves and with China. Those nations, like the Philippines, don’t have the resources or leverage to get a fair deal on their own. The Court will be the great equalizer, especially if the U.S. commits to assisting with enforcement. A successful cycle of dispute resolution, followed by enforcement, would be a much-needed exemplar for the rule of law.
The Senate needs to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The U.S. was a major leader in the Convention’s development, signed it in 1994, and already operates under its basic guidelines. We are the only major sea power not to have ratified it, and our failure to do so puts us in the company of North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Ratification will provide the moral authority and legitimacy U.S. policy currently lacks. UNCLOS is the gold standard for maritime conduct, territorial dispute resolution, and is championed by senior military officers and policy experts alike. Ratification will send a strong signal of U.S. resolve.
Some say we have “bigger problems”: Russia, North Korea and Iran, among others. Others will say we should let countries in the South China Sea work it out on their own, or that we risk a direct conflict with China. They are mistaken. We are on a slippery slope of appeasement with China: hasn’t this kind of thinking gotten us into big trouble in the past? The risk of inaction is great. We should act to counterbalance China now. We are the only ones who still can.
China’s increasing aggression in the South China Sea is a ticking time bomb. We can diffuse it if we get serious about a new approach to policy. It is in our strategic interest, it is the right thing to do, and we have the capacity. The U.S.-China relationship is complicated, but sorting out issues in the South China Sea is a great starting place. We have willing partners, and we should remind the world that there is still one superpower that understands leadership.