An Operational South China Sea Strategy for the United States

By Marvin Ott • June 24, 2015

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer U.S.S. Fitzgerald transits the South China Sea on the evening of April 17, 2015. Source: USNavy's flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

 – China’s campaign of overt territorial expansion in the South China Sea constitutes an increasingly urgent strategic challenge to the United States and its security partners in Southeast Asia. Absent effective countermeasures, the predictable future for the South China Sea will include China’s piecemeal seizure of additional territory and its further deployment of naval and air assets until it has de facto control of all the South China Sea within the “nine-dash line” demarcated on Chinese maps. International maritime passage through the South China Sea will be subject to Chinese regulation and approval.

By announcing the “pivot” or “rebalance” in 2011, the Obama administration effectively chose to contest China’s ambitions rather than acquiesce to them. The implications — and dangers – of that choice are profound. Bluntly put, it requires Washington to formulate and implement strategies and tactics designed to stymie further Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.

The U.S. position begins with the proposition that “Asia” includes the United States as a resident power with territories in the western Pacific, alliance obligations to several Asian countries, a six-decade plus military presence, and deep and long-standing political and economic ties to Asia. With regard to the South China Sea the long-established U.S. policy is simply stated: avoid entanglement in territorial claims while affirming the importance of peaceful negotiation and preservation of unimpeded passage through the region. Most, if not all, the expanse of the South China Sea constitute “high seas” under international law and the sea lanes through them are a “global commons” – they belong to all nations and are not within the sovereign territory of any country.

This posture was formulated in the halcyon days of unchallenged U.S. military superiority. But, at its heart it contains an ambiguity, i.e. how will the United States react if its prescriptions are defied and one or more countries resort to military coercion and reject the “global commons” principle? For over 50 years that ambiguity was never tested. Now it is. In 2012 China effectively compelled the Philippines to abandon Scarborough Shoal despite a U.S. naval presence. Superior U.S. military capabilities in the theater are hamstrung by the absence of operational strategic guidance.

Current formulations of U.S. strategy begin with a negative, i.e. the United States takes no position regarding the merits of disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea. Instead a strategy should begin with positives. First, the United States affirms the status of the South China Sea as “high seas” under international law and the status of the sea lanes through it as a “global commons.” Second, the United States strongly supports the principle of non-coercion/non-intimidation and the non-use of military force in addressing various disputes. Third, the United States recognizes its obligations to defend the security interests of treaty allies. These principles provide the basis for action: the absence of a position on the merits of particular claims becomes strategically irrelevant.

With these principles in mind, the Office of the Secretary of Defense should consider the following operational initiatives with requisite guidance to Pacific Command (PACOM).

  • U.S. forces will continue to deploy and operate in traditional international waters and airspace in the South China Sea and will not recognize Chinese claims that artificially created land features have standing under international law. [This step has already beenannounced by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter at the June 2015 Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore]. If China announces an Air Defense Identification Zone over part or all of the South China Sea, the United States will not recognize its validity or adhere to its constraints.
  • In order to assert and reinforce the principle of international access, PACOM should have ships in the South China Sea 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. PACOM should also diversify and expand naval and air patrols into parts of the South China Sea that have not been regularly traversed in the past – including within 12 nautical miles of artificial land features created by China.
  • Consider offering to escort and protect the Philippines’ resupply of its remaining South China Sea outposts (e.g. Second Thomas Shoal) in the face of Chinese obstruction, if necessary. This should be done not as an endorsement of Philippine claims but in defense of the principle of non-coercion.
  • Initiate annual multilateral naval exercises with allies and security partners in the South China Sea.
  • Initiate regular reconnaissance flights with onboard observers from Southeast Asian claimant states over Chinese seized areas.
  • Propose to Malaysia two initiatives: (1) a courtesy visit by a U.S. naval ship to the Malaysian navy facility on Swallow Reef and (2) publicize and regularize U.S. anti-submarine warfare (ASW) patrols out of the Malaysian naval bases at Labuan Island and/or Sepangar.
  • Propose upgraded maritime security cooperation with Indonesia including improving Indonesia’s capacity to conduct patrols along the boundary of the Natuna Islands’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
  • Initiate talks with Manila regarding the possible construction of military facilities on Palawan Island that would host rotational U.S. naval and air assets. This might include Aegis radars capable of supporting missile installations and the reconstitution of the target range in Crow Valley once used by U.S. carrier pilots to maintain proficiency.
  • Initiate talks with Hanoi with an eye toward increasing the tempo of U.S. ship visits to Cam Ranh Bay – putting them on a par with access currently accorded the Russian navy. End all restrictions on the sale of lethal weaponry to Vietnam.
  • Offer to accelerate assistance to Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines in maritime domain awareness and ASW capabilities in the South China Sea. Enlist enhanced Japanese and South Korean participation in this effort.
  • Establish a permanent ASEAN-U.S. working group on the South China Sea as a spin-off of the recently inaugurated U.S.-ASEAN Defense Ministers meetings.
  • Consider Pentagon assistance to non-governmental maritime observer and analysis organizations including the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of CSIS as part of a robust public information campaign highlighting Chinese activities.

Dr. Marvin C. Ott is a professorial lecturer and visiting scholar in Southeast Asia Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, lecturer in East Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, and public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He was formerly a professor in national security strategy at the National War College.

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