Geopolitical watchers have long know that there is increasing friction between the United States and China over the latter’s designs on dominating the South China Sea.
A recent analysis of the situation published in The Diplomat provides some excellent analysis on how Washington should proceed in the coming years, in a way that engages China without ramping up tensions and the chance for a military conflict. They include:
— Embrace Strategic Competition. Continue to reframe the SCS as a strategic problem that directly involves the United States obliges China to act accordingly. Explicitly conveying to Beijing that the SCS is a U.S. national interest, and making the SCS a “bilateral” U.S.-China issue may lead Beijing to rethink and recalibrate its strategy.
— Maintain U.S. Attention and Focus.In the coming years, the “most effective counterbalance or check” to China’s campaign of tailored coercion in the SCS will be continued U.S. attention and focus in the form of integrated and calibrated soft and hard deterrent powers (multilateral diplomacy, information dominance, military presence, and economic integration) to reassure allies and partners; demonstrate resolve and commitment; enhance force posture, capabilities, and readiness; bolster economic ties with multilateral and bilateral trade agreements; and dominate the strategic narratives.
The U.S. should continue the deliberate, calibrated, and quiet campaign of presence operations and freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), a principle of customary international law, to challenge China’s excessive and contested maritime claims in the SCS. Otherwise, failing to conduct routine operations in the aftermath of the Arbitral Tribunal ruling, particularly FONOPS, would send the wrong strategic signal and further embolden Beijing. Consider eventually expanding FONOPS to other nations and holding “combined (multi-national)” exercises to underscore the universal maritime right of all nations to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits.
— Underscore the Arbitral Tribunal’s Legitimacy Through Words and Actions. Manila and Washington did not capitalize on last year’s hard-fought legal victory over China’s excessive and contested maritime claims in the SCS. However, it is still not too late to encourage Beijing to act as (or become) a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system.
This involves countering China’s public diplomacy point-for-point, and reiterating stated U.S. positions to unambiguously convey American national interests and shape the post-ruling diplomatic space.
Washington should encourage and support Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, Bandar Seri Begawan, and as much as possible the other ASEAN countries, in putting additional pressure (including via legal challenges) on Beijing to curb its assertiveness, stop its land reclamation and militarization activities, and come in good faith to the multilateral negotiating table for a peaceful and enduring resolution of the competing and contested maritime claims.
Source: The Diplomat
In short, the United States cannot, and should not, concede the space to China, but contest it whenever and wherever necessary using a combination of established diplomatic order, the rule of law, military presence, and confidence-building measures aimed at ensuring allies in the region that Washington is committed to continued freedom of navigation, trade, and security of the South China Sea.