Captain Geoffrey Gage, U.S. Navy, is a Federal Executive Fellow at The Brookings Institution Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in Washington, DC. The views expressed by the author are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Navy. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, organization, or group.
National Security Situation: People’s Republic of China (PRC) land reclamation and coercive maritime activity in the South China Sea (SCS) contradicts international law and threatens U.S. national interests while a nascent U.S. foreign policy and other strategic challenges limit U.S. options.
Date Originally Written: February 10, 2017.
Date Originally Published: April 10, 2017.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author believes that current U.S. foreign policy, though limited in detail, provides a starting point for addressing the security situation in the SCS.
Background: Among the competing claims in the SCS, the PRC considers most of the SCS sovereign territory. Recent PRC maritime interference, land reclamation and fortification in the SCS constitute the most assertive claims and, despite international condemnation, have achieved de facto control of new territory. More broadly, in dealing with SCS and other international relations issues, the PRC prefers bi-lateral problem solving in search of “win-win” outcomes, while prizing clout that derives from participation in multi-lateral fora, military exercises, and summit meetings.
Nascent U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration, labeled “America First,” prioritizes defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and rebuilding the military. “Embracing diplomacy” is a stated intention while better trade deals for the U.S. are a constant theme. Administration statements and actions have generally supported these priorities, though the President’s fiscal year 2017 budget suggests fewer fiscal resources for diplomacy. In the near term this adds up to an economy of force: military operations focused in the Middle East, managing security commitments elsewhere in order to rebuild readiness, and forging advantageous trade deals.
Significance: The security situation in the SCS threatens regional stability and the security of sea lanes. The SCS is the maritime crossroads for trillions of dollars in trade between globally dispersed producers and consumers. The SCS is also important for U.S. naval forces operating between the Pacific and Indian Oceans in support of regional alliance commitments and, more generally, maintaining freedom of the seas.
The SCS is not a vital national interest for the U.S. The SCS is not as critical to U.S. national security as the prospect of North Korean nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missiles. Nevertheless, the security situation in the SCS is very important to the U.S. because of its alliance commitments and the potential for military conflict, indirect economic harm, and degradation of international norms.
The PRC view of the “South Sea” as a vital national interest explains, though does not excuse, their actions. In addition to vital trade flows, the SCS offers an extension of PRC military capability. What’s more, Communist Party of China (CPC) legitimacy derives in part from SCS adventurism. In advance of this year’s 19th CPC Congress, even the status quo gains in the SCS may be sufficient for the party—and President Xi—to claim success and retain tight control.
The April 2017 U.S.-PRC summit will likely focus on basic relationship building, North Korea and trade. The SCS security situation, if left unaddressed, could be construed as tacit U.S. acceptance. A reasonable near-term objective may be to maintain the status quo. Given emerging “America First” foreign policy priorities, U.S. SCS options are captured in two distinct categories, Indirect and Direct.
Option #1: Indirect Approach. Leverage issues outside of the SCS to influence the PRC in the SCS. For example, tie the conditions of trade agreements to PRC actions in the SCS. Another option is greater U.S. patience on North Korea in exchange for the PRC’s cooperation in the SCS. A less fraught military option would be to exclude the PRC from participation in combined exercises such as Rim of the Pacific subject to better behavior in the SCS. This approach hinges on the U.S. “ask,” ranging from maintenance of the status quo to reversal of the PRC’s SCS island reclamation and fortification.
Risk: Linking largely disparate issues may confuse U.S. priorities and further complicate relations with the PRC. Option #1, in the case of North Korea, could be perceived by South Korea as a sell-out for a less important issue, creating acrimony between allies and further destabilizing the situation on the Korean peninsula. Similarly, if the PRC perceives its position in the SCS as an existential one, it may refuse to “give” on trade agreements, sparking a trade war.
Gain: Option #1 effectively makes the SCS more important to the U.S. from the PRC’s perspective. Success of this option depends on limited objectives and reasonable demands. If executed deftly, these indirect levers to stabilize the situation in the SCS could yield progress across a range of mutually important Asia-Pacific challenges while keeping the issue safely on the back burner.
Option #2: Direct Approach. Focus efforts in the SCS region. Sustain the long-standing policy of routine military presence, including U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) near the contested land features. Conducting FONOPs and other military operations in the region is an obvious lever, with the option to adjust the frequency and nature of those measures, including land-based exercises with local allied and partner nations. Drawing “red lines” against further island reclamation or fortification is a logical consideration given past administration statements. Targeted economic sanctions on PRC entities supporting SCS activities is another lever. A novel and riskier measure would be to abandon U.S. neutrality with respect to claims in the SCS and endorse a solution—one that might include certain PRC claims. Finally, the U.S. could tie maintenance of the One China policy to the security situation in the SCS—a direct measure because Taiwan is an SCS claimant whose nationalist forbearers conceived of the nine-dashed line.
Risk: Option #2 presents an array of risks, not least being a military confrontation that could undermine broader U.S. strategic priorities. In particular, drawing red lines in the SCS would dramatically increase the risk of confrontation, as would linking the One China policy to SCS issues. Mitigating the risk of a direct approach is done through incremental steps that are mindful of the broader regional situation.
Gain: Option #2 is unambiguous and reinforces U.S. commitment and resolve on the key issues of freedom of navigation, territorial integrity and treaty obligations. The direct approach also contains the issue to the SCS, de-linking the matter from higher-priority issues facing the U.S. and the PRC.
Other Comments: As the new U.S. administration develops a comprehensive national security strategy, foreign challenges and crises will not wait. Every “environmental monitoring station,” surface-to-air missile site and high seas harassment in the international waters of the SCS constitutes a “win-lose” in the Sino-American relationship.
 Foreign Ministry of PRC. (2017). China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation (http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805)
 Trump, Donald J., President. (2017). America first foreign policy. https://www.whitehouse.gov/america-first-foreign-policy
 Mission of the U.S. Navy. http://www.navy.mil/navydata/organization/org-top.asp
 Fisher, M. (2012, November 26). Here’s the Chinese passport map that’s infuriating much of Asia. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2012/11/26/heres-the-chinese-passport-map-thats-infuriating-much-of-asia/