Rationalizing U.S. Goals in the South China Sea

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 3, No. 9, September 2015.

By Gregory B. Poling

Abstract

Construction at Fiery Cross Reef as of November 2014. Source: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and Digital Globe.

Construction at Fiery Cross Reef as of November 2014. Source: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and Digital Globe.

There has been an explosion of interest in the U.S. policy community regarding the South China Sea disputes, but that interest has too often resulted in oversimplifications and haphazard recommendations regarding how the United States should respond to Chinese activities in disputed waters. Not every action that could be taken should be taken. In order to respond effectively to increasing tensions, U.S. policymakers must clearly identify U.S. long-term strategic goals and gear policy responses toward achieving them. This paper argues that the United States’ top interest in the South China Sea is the preservation of the global maritime commons, and its eventual goal must therefore be to see China clarify its ambiguous “nine-dash line” claim so that the claimants can reach a long-term agreement on managing the disputes that is consistent with international law. Building partner capacity and boosting U.S. presence in order to prevent other claimants from being steamrolled by Chinese bullying before such a resolution can be effected is an important part of that strategy, but it is not the long-term goal. The paper concludes with a number of recommended policy responses the United States should take in order to further its strategic goals.

China’s island building campaign in the Spratly Islands continued unabated through most of 2015, despite strident condemnation from fellow claimants and outside nations. Chinese dredging ships remained hard at work expanding seven features: Cuarteron, Gaven, Hughes, Fiery Cross, Johnson South, Mischief, and Subi reefs. Their work appears to have been completed.[1] Now China is moving from island building to large-scale construction of military and civilian structures at these artificial land masses. China has presented the region and interested outside parties, including the United States, with a fait accompli.

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