For all of the endless hype surrounding America's so-called pivot - its strategic rebalance toward Asia - the Obama administration has failed to stop China's growing dominance in the region. CNN's fantastic reporting in the South China Sea makes the scale of the problem abundantly clear.
Dangerous trend lines are developing that are visible to anyone who has been paying attention to the Asia-Pacific over the last several years. Beijing has set a course to not only declare a new Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea, an area through which $5.3 billion of seaborne trade passes every year, but also to displace Washington as the dominant power throughout Asia. China is following that course one "reclaimed" island at a time.
Indeed, despite a strategy that was intended to reassure allies throughout the region, it seems quite clear no U.S. partner can feel good about Washington's foreign policy choices over the last several years. Events in Ukraine and the Middle East have undermined the Obama administration's most important international initiative - indeed, the pivot has often become an afterthought.
Clearly America must respond to Chinese actions. But what should be the proper response? There are only two options going forward.
My preferred solution to the South China Sea challenge would see all regional actors freeze all island reclamation projects and relinquish all claims of sovereignty, with a gradual move toward joint development of the area's natural resources and fisheries. It seems almost comical in the current context. However, Washington's first move should be to publicly propose just such an arrangement as a way to lessen tensions, and to dispel any notions of foul intent before any other strategy is implemented. In suggesting such an initiative, the United States should point out that China in the 1970s proposed a similar model, shelving sovereignty claims it disputed with Japan in the East China Sea in order to enhance relations. Such a model could certainly be used again.
If the above fails, and there is every reason to think it will, a new approach needs to be adopted. While it seems quite clear that Beijing will enjoy greater influence in the South China Sea in the years to come, the United States, along with its allies and partners, must quickly enact a strategy that forces China to pay the maximum possible cost for each grain of reclaimed sand it places on every island. While it seems highly unlikely that Beijing would shelve construction and head home under any scenario short of kinetic conflict, the goal would be to deter any future reclamation projects, while also reinforcing the idea that China's aggressive actions will always come with an associated cost.
America and its allies have a strong set of tools that can raise the costs for Beijing. These include current initiatives that could be enhanced dramatically, as well as new policy options. All must come into play if Beijing's calculus is to be changed.
1. Time for "Lawfare" on Steroids:
Washington should work with its allies and partners in the South China Sea to settle any disputes in the region that do not involve China. While clearly not an easy task, Beijing's growing mastery of the region could spur these parties to reach an accommodation. With this achieved, all parties that have claims against China could join the Philippines and file a challenge in international courts. While lawfare, as it is now popularly know, will likely draw no formal challenge from Beijing beyond its standard claims of "indisputable sovereignty," a much larger filing by a united front of nations would certainly constitute a stronger action. Washington would take no official stance, but it could certainly offer words of encouragement and urge Beijing to settle such disputes with its neighbors in a multilateral setting. Even a flood of separate lawsuits by each claimant, filed simultaneously for maximum impact, could leave Beijing scrambling - stuck in a public-relations nightmare it could not easily dismiss.
2. Introducing "Shamefare":
CNN's recent reporting, along with the reports and graphics of CSIS' Asia Maritime Project, are excellent examples of what Washington should be doing on a regular basis: setting out to win the media narrative and to define Beijing's motives for reclamation projects in the South China Sea. Perhaps Washington cannot get China to halt its construction. But it can make sure the world is aware of every move Beijing makes.