U.S. Strategy in the South China Sea

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 4, No. 5, May 2016

By Sean R. Liedman

In this Sept. 17, 2015, file photo, Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Pacific Command walks past a photograph showing an island that China is building on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea, as the prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on maritime security strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. Navy's challenge to China's sovereignty claims in the South China Sea was not designed as a military threat, Harris said Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015, in a mostly upbeat speech about prospects for preventing U.S.-China disputes from escalating to conflict. Speaking in the Chinese capital, Harris cited a recent statement by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter that the international order "faces challenges from Russia and, in a different way, from China, with its ambiguous maritime claims," including Beijing's claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

In this Sept. 17, 2015, file photo, Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Pacific Command walks past a photograph showing an island that China is building on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea, as the prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on maritime security strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

Abstract:  

Since the end of World War II, U.S. strategy towards China has tacked between three central policy themes: containment, cooperative engagement, and competition. Additionally, a fourth unstated strategic theme undergirds the above: prevailing in the event of conflict. Even though they are fundamentally conflicting ideas, the principles of cooperation and competition remain central tenets of the U.S. strategy versus China today, and the tension between those two principles has been on full display in the South China Sea since 2012. Looking to the future, the United States has three broad policy options vis-à-vis recent Chinese activities in the South China Sea: 1) “Continued concession” to Chinese territorial expansion in the South China Sea in the interest of achieving broader strategic objectives, 2) “Freeze the status quo”, or 3) “Roll back” Chinese expansion and excessive sovereignty claims. Key observable metrics will indicate which of these policy options is being followed, the range of diplomatic and military strategies to achieve those policy aims, and their likely outcomes.

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