Washington Needs a More Assertive China Policy
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.
Here are some examples of how shamefare could work in practice:
- When China lays down concrete to construct a new runway that could be used to patrol the area, photos and video should be distributed to the media immediately.
- If Beijing does place advanced fighter jets or missiles on its new islands, the world should have pictures and video plastered on every major news outlet as soon as possible.
- If U.S. vessels exercising freedom of navigation come under Chinese harassment in the South China Sea, the episodes should be captured on video and placed on YouTube immediately.
Shaming China repeatedly for its actions will allow America and its allies to win the battle of competing narratives and put Beijing on the defensive. China would be left having to constantly explain its actions. Being a member of the media, I know what a powerful ally it can be. America needs to use it to its advantage.
3. Turn A2/AD Against China:
As many have stated in various publications, China is not the only actor that can use an anti-access strategy to negate advanced military muscle. The United States could very easily help other South China Sea claimants develop or purchase advanced anti-ship weapons - or at least look the other way as they do so. Japan, for example, could sell the Type 12 missile system to various South China Sea claimants. While the missile has limited capabilities compared to Chinese platforms, the system could be updated to increase its range, making it even more deadly. Additional anti-ship and ground attack platforms could be purchased from third parties or developed jointly, with the goal of quickly destroying any bases or stationed weapons systems based on China's new islands.
4. Don't Respect Beijing's Core Interests:
If Beijing wants to raise the stakes in the South China Sea, it should know its actions will have repercussions across the region - even in the areas it holds most dear.
Recent publications mark a subtle shift in the thinking of U.S.-based China and Asia scholars. The gist of it is this: If China is hell-bent on changing the international order in Asia to accommodate its own wants and aspirations, why should America respects its core interests anymore?
For example, if Taiwan wishes to enhance its own military with progress toward new conventional submarines, or by purchasing updated F-16 or even F-35 aircraft, Washington should help. America could even float the possibility of large arms sales agreements with Vietnam and the Philippines as a way to level the playing field. Washington could also speak out to a much greater extent on human rights abuses in China - specifically in Tibet and Xinjiang. Regular invitations to the White House for the Dali Lama and Chinese human rights activists would certainly get Beijing's attention.
5. Make the Ultimate Threat (It's Not War):
China's growing power has always been rooted in its economic rise. Bearing in mind Beijing's actions over the last several years, it is long past time for Washington to consider whether its deep trade and economic relationship with China now runs counter to its own national interests. Should America's economic success be so intertwined with a rising China that routinely challenges the international order?
The mere threat to reverse decades of U.S. economic policy would be enough to give Beijing pause. U.S.-Chinese bilateral trade is worth more than $550 billion. Even the slightest hint of a change would have powerful ramifications - and would likely be opposed by many in the American business community who have made their fortunes in China. Yet, with $1.2 trillion-worth of U.S. seaborne trade passing through the South China Sea, and with a global commons that has stood the test of time now under threat, Washington has a powerful reason to hint at reconsidering its economic relationship with Beijing (and an even more important reason to ensure the Trans-Pacific Partnership becomes reality).
America's Time to Act is Now
The South China Sea is the beating heart of the Asia-Pacific region, but it is also a cauldron of geostrategic problems. If China were to dominate this critical body of water, moving from outlandish declarations to outright control of vital shipping lanes, natural resources, and rich fishing stocks, a dangerous precedent would be set that would have global ramifications for years to come. Washington needs to decide in the very near future on a clear course of action to ensure China pays a steep price for its actions. If not, Beijing really will be able to call the South China Sea its very own lake.