Concrete Steps for the U.S. in the South China Sea

March 16, 2015

The United States, its allies, and its partners face an intertwined series of challenges in the South China Sea. This nested series of issues is most clearly manifest in China’s recent (and continuing) island-creation and expansion in the South China Sea.

China’s island-dredging is itself only a symptom of the real problem: a significant power vacuum in the South China Sea.

The United States has largely reduced its presence in those waters over the past 20 years. While the overall capabilities of the U.S. Navy are increasing with each new ship, the newer, more versatile platforms are more expensive. In DoD terminology, the Navy has prioritized capability over capacity, with the result being the reduction by more than 20 percent in total Navy ships since 1995. Combined with demands on the U.S. Navy to be present in the waters around the Middle East, and the United States is left with fewer “presence days” elsewhere in the world.

In terms of hard power, Southeast Asia’s littoral states’ maritime—navy and coast guard—capabilities are extremely limited. In addition, they are reluctant to take actions that would put them in direct opposition to China. The reluctance may be due, at least in part, to the fact that China is the top trading partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Even considering countries’ willingness to pursue their interests according to international law, the Philippines’ much-noted arbitration case (which was initially highly controversial among ASEAN countries) is only to determine what maritime features are contestable in court—not who owns them, but “can they be owned?”

Together, these factors leave a significant power gap in the South China Sea. While Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia are all increasing their spending on maritime assets, their efforts will need to be sustained for at least another decade to provide the countries with both the assets and the crews capable of sustaining presence in their claimed waters of the South China Sea. Mira Rapp-Hooper is right to highlight the need to expedite U.S. capacity-building efforts for maritime domain awareness. That said, China’s 35 years of economic growth, and 20 years of 10 percent or more annual growth in military spending allows it to fill the gap. If current trends continue, the future strategic landscape in the South China Sea will be considerably different, and unlike today, it will no longer be open to interpretation.

Recent events certainly suggest that the Chinese are consolidating their claims in a de facto, if not a de jure way. But is it really so bad for the United States if China controls the fisheries and resources of the South China Sea? After all, China asserts it does not seek to impede the free flow of commerce in the South China Sea.

Despite China’s stated commitment to uphold open commerce, it has demonstrated both its capability and willingness to utilize economic tools punitively to further national objectives. For example, China halted exports of rare earth elements, necessary for batteries and other high-end electronics, to Japan during a 2010 dispute over the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain. At the time, China controlled 93 percent of the global supply of rare earths.

China has a legitimate interest in preserving the continued flow of commerce through the South China Sea, with a large share of its imports flowing through those waters. However, Japan and South Korea have the same interest in the free-flow of commerce, and are even more import-dependent for many resources than China. Approximately 50 percent of annual global merchant shipping traverses the South China Sea. Should China have control of the waters of the South China Sea, there is no certainty it would not utilize the same economic strong-arm tactics used against Japan to secure its objectives.

Promoting the rule of law and equal access by all countries to the maritime commons will require a far more comprehensive set of activities from the United States.

The first need, as noted by several contributors at War on the Rocks, is that the United States will need to pursue policies that demonstrate to China that its actions in the South China Sea risk escalation. As long as China sees little risk of escalation in its actions, it will have little reason to refrain from provocation.

Second, my colleague Zack Cooper is right that the United States needs “gray hulls for gray zones.” To be truly effective, the United States (and countries in Southeast Asia) will also need more hulls so that they are present more often for more time. Doing so will require the United States to carefully consider what the rules of engagement are, and the latitude given to ship commanders.

Third the United States must demonstrate progress on the economic front. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) needs to be signed this year. For the United States to be seen as a viable economic partner (and not just a guarantor of security), TPP is the minimal credible step. In addition, the United States should identify targeted ways to promote U.S. investment in the developing economies throughout Southeast and South Asia, and should work with countries in these regions to bolster rule of law and contract enforcement so that businesses have greater clarity about the market environment.

Fourth, the United States should commission legal scholars from across the region and a broader community of interest to develop a proposal for the legal status (elevation, rock, or island) of each feature in the South China Sea. Countries would be free to debate differing viewpoints, but this would be a useful mechanism for countries to reduce tensions without directly confronting one another’s claims.

Lastly, the United States must present a vision for what a vibrant and open South China Sea could look like. Currently, zero-sum national interests combine with resource and political constraints to impede countries bordering the South China Sea from working together to achieve positive outcomes. The United States must partner with littoral states to build the case that countries in the region have more to gain working together than they have to lose.

If the United States is unwilling to commit to these actions—or a comparably ambitious slate—then we should all begin to adjust to a South China Sea that is controlled according to Chinese, rather than international, law.


John Schaus is a Fellow in the International Security Program at CSIS where he focuses on defense and security issues in the Asia-Pacific. From 2011 to 2014 he worked in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery