30 October 2015

ChinaFile Conversation: “Making Waves in the South China Sea”

What next? How to manage? I suggest the next steps: as China challenges, the United States must keep calm and press on.

Challenging China’s newly assertive behavior in the South China Sea, this week the U.S. Navy sailed some of its biggest ships inside the nine-dash line, exercising its claim to freedom of movement in international waters plied by billions in trade each day. Was the U.S. action necessary? What might have been done differently? What was the calculus in Washington and what are the risks? What happened and what might happen next? —The Editors

Andrew S. Erickson, “Making Waves in the South China Sea,” A ChinaFile Conversation, The Asia Society, 30 October 2015.

… Self-righteous ranting in state media outlets cannot change the fact that in its recent efforts to jurisdictionalize and de-internationalize the majority of the South China Sea, China:

Nevertheless, given its cultivation of nationalism to shore up public support despite a slowing economy, China’s government likely will attempt to increase pressure in an attempt to frustrate U.S. efforts and deter U.S. allies and partners from supporting them. Pressure will come in multiple forms, from diplomacy and public messaging to assertive activities on land and on and over the sea. …

In its current blustering, China is on the wrong side of both law and history, but is unlikely to initiate open conflict despite Admiral Wu Shengli’s dire predictions. The United States should keep calm and press on. It enjoys extensive, if often quiet, support throughout the Asia-Pacific and beyond. It should continue FONOPS and other legal activities to continually demonstrate that Beijing cannot carve out the “Near Seas” (Yellow, East, and South China seas) into a zone of exceptionalism where Beijing’s parochial priorities supersede vital international laws and norms.

This will require sustained determination. As President Obama himself recognizes, one must be “firm with [China], because they will push as hard as they can until they meet resistance.”