In the South China Sea, China is playing billiards, while America is playing some version of Capture the Flag. For Beijing, the goal is to knock the other billiard balls off the table, leaving itself in control. Washington, on the other hand, is trying to keep Beijing from capturing the flag of regional hegemony.
American policy makers need to recognize they're playing a different game from the Chinese and adjust their strategy. While shifting to billiards is too provocative for Washington, if trends continue, it may soon find itself behind the eight ball with few options for maintaining its stabilizing role in the region.
Observers have two different interpretations of what the Chinese challenge actually is. Many in Washington believe that China threatens freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, thereby potentially harming U.S. national interests, including uncontested passage of U.S. Navy ships, the free flow of global economic trade and maritime lifelines to U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea.
By contrast, many in Southeast Asia believe that the issue is one of control over territorial resources. By some estimates, the region holds as much as 30 billion barrels of oil and over 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. While dozens of oil fields are already being explored, it is the ability to control future exploration and exploitation of such resources that is driving China's behavior.
Beijing's claim of the entire South China Sea puts it into a position to contest the ownership of territories that contain proven resources. The most likely flashpoints are the Spratly and Paracel Islands, each of which is claimed by multiple nations, including China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. This is the same dynamic at play in the dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, north of Taiwan.
China's territorial claims can be most effectively exercised by having the capability both to move anywhere in the region's waters (already achieved) as well as to prevent other nations from navigating freely. Thus, harassing and shadowing the navies and maritime exploration vessels of other countries serves as a de facto test of Beijing's strength and influence. As the surface fleet of its Navy grows, its ability to deploy and cover more territory takes on added meaning with the displays of assertiveness of the past years.
There is little reason to believe that Beijing has any thought (let alone the ability) to seriously hamper regional navigation; such blatantly aggressive moves would be immediately challenged by the U.S. Navy. Yet, making clear its ability to do so can result in political pressure being put on smaller nations to surrender or modify their territorial claims and to curb their legitimate maritime activities.
This all may not quite amount to a strategy, but it certainly resembles the tactics of the billiard table. Beijing targets the billiard balls of its neighbors, trying to knock them off the table one by one.
In response, Southeast Asian countries have started clamoring for the U.S. to intervene. The Philippines last week said that its 1951 defense treaty with the U.S. would cover Chinese threats.
But the U.S. answer isn't so easy. If Washington pushes too hard and asks Southeast Asian nations to significantly increase joint maritime activities, it will likely find that Hanoi, Manila, Jakarta and the rest fear making China an enemy even more than they fear China acting as a bully. Too little response by the Americans, however, will convince the smaller nations that they might have no choice but to accede to China's wishes.
In balancing these concerns, Washington has ended up playing a completely different game. As a status quo power, Washington has largely been reactive to Chinese testing of the limits of regional norms. Instead of punishing China for its provocations, American policy has tried to reassure Beijing of America's goodwill and convince Chinese leaders that it poses no threat to China's growing influence. It is hoped this will induce the Chinese to act responsibly, even when tweaked by smaller nations.
The best way forward is to recognize China's game, start playing it and then rig the table. Washington should seek to expand the billiard table by putting more balls into play. India has just announced plans to increase naval patrols in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which lie at the Indian Ocean entrance to the Malacca Strait. Japan has made a strategic shift to focus on its "southwestern island wall" stretching from Kyushu to just north of Taiwan. Australia will be modernizing and doubling its submarine fleet over the next decade.
Then Washington should induce these partners to play a bigger role near disputed waters through greater engagement with Southeast Asian nations. Further, U.S. and allied ships should shadow Chinese vessels when they start to approach contested territory and move quickly to areas where incidents have occurred.
More broadly, Washington's goal, executed through Hawaii-based Pacific Command, should be to create a more active maritime community of interests in the Indo-Pacific arc and to counter Chinese moves where they occur. Greater sharing of intelligence resources, joint training, coordinated (if not joint) patrols and the like will provide the measure of security necessary to ensure smaller nations that their international rights are being protected. U.S. and allied ships should have no compunction about shadowing Chinese naval vessels when they start to approach contested territory.
Finally, political bluntness, such as that of U.S. Senator Jim Webb, who warned of a coming "Munich moment" in Asia, will clarify the issues at stake. Whether it wants to or not, America will have to start nudging some billiard balls around the table.