In just a few months, Beijing has transformed a number of tiny reefs and rocks in the South China Sea into six small military bases, intimidating smaller countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam and fortifying an area through which a third of the world’s commercial container ships transit.
The bases are the latest in a series of provocative moves by China, which has asserted that the area is its sovereign territory. In 2012, Chinese maritime forces ejected the Philippines from Scarborough Shoal to the north of the new Spratly Islands outposts; that same year, Beijing declared that the area was under its new “Nansha” administrative region; and last spring Chinese patrol ships escorted a huge mobile oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. The dry docks and runways at the Spratly bases will allow Chinese forces to sustain a permanent air and naval presence across the South China Sea without having to return to the mainland for fuel or repairs. Chinese officials have warned that eventually the area could be designated an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), requiring all aircraft flying through to register with Beijing, as it did a year ago in the East China Sea.
Thus far Beijing has operated within the gray zones of international law. Land reclamation is not strictly illegal, and other claimants have undertaken construction efforts on Spratly features they occupy. Beijing has also carefully chosen to build bases on islands where local forces are not strong enough to resist and U.S. security treaty obligations are not entirely clear — a contrast to the East China Sea, where it must take care not to clash with Japan’s capable Maritime Self Defense Forces or trigger a U.S. intervention over the Senkaku Islands.
The United States does not have a stake in the sovereignty claims at issue, but it has an important interest in ensuring that China does not use coercion to change the status quo. The Chinese trajectory suggests that it intends to do just that. Halting Chinese land reclamation and base-building would be difficult, but other steps can be taken to dissuade Beijing from moving down the path of coercion.
First, Washington should continue to invest in capacity-building efforts with countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, which are most directly threatened by China’s rapid buildup. In particular, we should support Southeast Asian nations’ efforts to improve their maritime surveillance capabilities so they can establish a reliable operating picture of the South China Sea. Japan and other allies stand ready to assist with infrastructure investment and transfers of equipment.
Second, the U.S. Navy should demonstrate that China’s moves will not diminish freedom of navigation in the area. The rotational deployment of four combat ships to Singapore will help, but these ships and other 7th Fleet assets should increase their exercises with partners in the region. Beijing should also understand that any declaration of an exclusive ADIZ over the South China Sea will not be acceptable. When Beijing declared such a zone over the East China Sea, the United States sent unarmed B-52s directly through it to demonstrate that there would be no impact on U.S. operations, but that came after the fact. Beijing needs to understand ahead of time that a South China Sea ADIZ invite a robust response.
Third, the United States should assist Southeast Asia with diplomatic and legal measures it is taking to slow China’s effort. The United States has long encouraged the development of a South China Sea code of conduct between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but Beijing appears to be slow-walking these talks. There is room, however, for the United States to step up support for ongoing international legal efforts. China’s building spree apparently aims, at least in part, to undermine the Philippines’ maritime legal case against it, which is being heard at The Hague. Washington should provide the tribunal with detailed information on the status of the Spratly features that China is transforming, to ensure that Manila gets its day in court. The United States can also hold up the example of Taiwan’s East China Sea peace initiative and agreements with the Philippines and Japan on resource sharing and joint development. The goal of U.S. policy should not be to defeat Chinese diplomacy in Asia but to use dissuasion and transparency to push China toward more responsible diplomacy.
The administration has taken small steps in these directions, but it continues to debate whether this is really a good time for increased tension with Beijing. China’s rapid fortification of the South China Sea should make it clear to all that, without a more robust response now, there will almost certainly be a more dangerous confrontation later.
Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at Georgetown University. Mira Rapp Hooper is a fellow with the Asia Program and director of CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.