The Debate

Toward a New Maritime Strategy in the South China Sea

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The Debate

Toward a New Maritime Strategy in the South China Sea

How the US can reformulate its approach to China in the maritime domain.

Toward a New Maritime Strategy in the South China Sea
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Declan Barnes/Released

China’s attempts at unilaterally changing the status quo in maritime Asia are most visible in the South China Sea, where previously small land features are now burgeoning military outposts. The United States needs to retool its approach to China in the Western Pacific and move toward a new maritime strategy.

China’s buildup of armed forces and installations on disputed islands in the South China Sea highlights twin ambitions of solidifying expansive territorial claims and demonstrating Beijing’s growing military reach out to the Second Island Chain and beyond. Landing long-range H-6K bombers on China’s largest outpost in the Paracel archipelago could presage similar moves on the Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross Reefs in the Spratly Islands. The fortification of South China Sea installations is both a byproduct of and a means to so-called gray-zone challenges to the existing order. China seeks to change the status quo through incremental actions, mobilizing both military and paramilitary forces, and threats of coercion — but stopping short of steps that might trigger conflict.

The United States is pursuing several lines of effort to counter Chinese aggression, including naming and shaming China’s unilateral assertions, bolstering allied and partner capacity, and conducting more frequent but routine freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs). In response to China’s destabilizing moves in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, the U.S. disinvited the People’s Liberation Army Navy from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise in late July, citing that China’s actions undermine regional security, transparency, and freedom of the seas. Despite this increased effort, there are still key areas lacking in the proposed U.S. maritime strategy.

The current U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy espouses the importance of ensuring that the region bridging two major oceans, and where power is likely to predominate for decades to come, remains “free and open.” U.S. strategy that seeks to expand the geographical coverage at a time when the United States needs friends. The Indo-Pacific strategy envisages strengthening cooperation with allies and partners, with members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) remaining at the fulcrum.

Xi Jinping’s push to militarize the South China Sea serves to expand Beijing’s control over the vital economic zones in the Indo-Pacific. The South China Sea is a critical trade route for China; nearly 30 percent of the world’s maritime trade (and about 40 percent of China’s) transits the region. The semi-enclosed sea presents a potential anti-area/access-denial (A2/AD) challenge for China in both the First and Second Island Chains due to the narrow chokepoints that are could be controlled by U.S. and allied forces. Many of the disputed land features China lays claim to are in this critical region, and China’s aggressive build-up has turned these previously vulnerable areas (think “Malacca Dilemma“) into zones of control to keep out American and allied powers.

As the Chinese continue to bolster their First Island Chain claims, they have steadily expanded toward the Second Island Chain, seeking to tip the maritime balance of power in the South China Sea with a combination of boosted anti-ship and anti-air capabilities. In addition to landing H-6K bombers, China’s artificial islands are now capable of deploying HQ-9B surface-to-air missiles and YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles, as well as radar and communications jamming equipment. The anti-ship cruise missiles operating from the Spratly airfields could deny large swaths of the South China Sea to U.S. forces, and the H-6K bomber and the DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile could reach Guam, a critical U.S. territory and strategic military base. The United States needs to urgently consider a serious maritime strategy to counter gray-zone aggression and foster inter-agency cooperation with allies in the region.

First, the United States needs to expand its ability to impose costs on egregious violations of regional norms and the rule of law in and around the South China Sea. China’s takeaway thus far is that there is no severe cost to ts salami slicing tactics. Disinviting the Chinese Navy from RIMPAC is still only a reactive response to Chinese aggression. A complete toolkit of measures to impose costs on bad behavior could draw on a menu of options produced in previous studies.

Second, the United States needs to redouble efforts, both nationally and in concert with like-minded countries, to improve an Indo-Pacific constellation for shared maritime domain awareness. The 2012 Scarborough Shoal crisis could have been averted had the Philippines enjoyed better information on the disposition of forces in the region. Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, all hold potential as partners in the region to check arbitrary power with both an information-rich and rules-based counterweight. Furthermore, the United States should make a more concerted effort at organizing its stakeholders for improving maritime domain awareness. Washington needs to better harness cooperation between its armed forces, the Coast Guard, law enforcement, as well as civilian and commercial entities involved in the free and open flow of maritime traffic.

Joint coast guard exercises in this region, backed by nations with established fleets like Japan and Australia, can also improve enforcement of international maritime norms. There is potential in developing cooperation in maritime activities such as search and rescue operations and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations together.

Third, the United States should support the creation of a multinational combined maritime flotilla to check against unilateral changes to the status quo in the region. One model for a maritime coalition of the willing is Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150), an international grouping that seeks to disrupt terrorist operations in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes around the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Command of the task force could rotate among several Southeast Asian nations, similar to the rotating ASEAN Chairmanship.

The primary purpose of a new maritime task force would not replicate the law enforcement and anti-piracy patrols already in existence. Instead, it would offer a bulwark against further militarization of the South China Sea and other potentially unlawful activities. Moreover, countries outside Southeast Asia that rely on the South China Sea — including the United States, Japan, Australia, India, France, and the United Kingdom among others — could also participate in task force operations. China would also be welcome upon acceptance of the rules set by the task force, which could incentivize better behavior and cooperation. Furthermore, the task force could help to enforce an eventual Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.

Finally, it’s time to deny China the hollow claim that Beijing follows international maritime law, while Washington flouts it. The opposite is true. China has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) but adheres to it selectively by privileging domestic law and unilaterally asserting historical rights. In contrast, the United States Department of Defense abides by UNCLOS as a matter of customary international law, even though the United States has never ratified the treaty.

The United States should at long last ratify UNCLOS to advance America’s interests by reinforcing favorable rules for the governance of the world’s oceans on which we depend. Adopting UNCLOS would bolster American leadership at a time when many question its reliability and staying power.

These four steps are not a substitute for a comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy. But collectively, these steps could be the beginning of a stronger network of partners and provide the means of preventing any single nation from unilaterally determining the rules for the world heading into the 21st century.

This piece was originally published in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ PacNet newsletter.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of and Melodie Ha is a Joseph S. Nye, Jr. National Security Intern with the Asia-Pacific Security Program of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).