What Should the U.S. Do in the South China Sea?
What Should the U.S. Do in the South China Sea?
Abdulaziz Sager on Saudi-Iranian diplomatic deal
Abdulaziz Sager on Saudi-Iranian diplomatic deal
Op-Ed / Asia 1 minutes

What Should the U.S. Do in the South China Sea?

Beijing continues to push the envelope, and Washington seems stymied. What's a better way forward?

The game has changed in the South China Sea. By sending a military aircraft to take a close-up view of the outposts China is constructing and stating it “will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” the U.S. appears to have drawn a red line for Beijing.

Washington demonstrated its substantive investment in freedom of navigation and open access to Asia’s maritime commons and displayed resolve to counter threats to them. The message, delivered via the navy, will discredit a calculation by some Chinese and regional actors that the United States is unwilling or incapable of delivering more than verbal protests, because it is distracted by crises in other parts of the world. It may also stiffen the spines of other players, most importantly the Association of South East Asia Nations (ASEAN).

The United States, however, needs to clarify its red line, bearing in mind the attendant risks. By doing so it may influence Beijing’s cost-benefit calculation about how to use the outposts it is building on remote reefs and deter China from restricting access to the high seas and international airspace. Painstaking U.S. diplomacy might also bring all claimants to agree to a moratorium on island reclamation over time. “An immediate and lasting halt” to such activities, as laid down by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, is a much taller order, unless Washington stands ready to impose a cost on Beijing that would risk damaging bilateral relations and regional stability. Laying down a red line but failing to enforce it would cost the United States credibility around the world.

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Former Senior Analyst, China
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Andrew S. Erickson
Professor at U.S. Naval War College

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