The United States’ present approach to countering China’s continued creeping aggression in the South China Sea has failed. The U.S. Navy is not achieving it long-term political objectives of using Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to substantively change China’s revisionist attitudes and belligerent behavior in the region, or to uphold the rule of international law. However, our failure thus far is not final. While the cancerous expansion of Chinese terrestrial outposts and coercive maritime presence in the South China Sea is now considerably more advanced from when U.S. FONOPs began, there is still time to retrieve the situation before the regional and international communities either politically recognize China’s ill-gotten gains or capitulate to its continental conception of sovereignty over ocean areas. Staging a recovery requires that we come to a new understanding of the core nature of the threat, reexamine our current efforts to discern their effect on the decisive center of gravity, and apply learning from our own not-too-distant history to craft new strategies and operational concepts that will capture the initiative and more effectively achieve our just aim of upholding freedom of the sea and the rule of law in the international sphere.
China’s multi-pronged strategy to advance its revisionist aims in the South China Sea—up and down the conflict spectrum and across different domains—has taken on the character of an attacking octopus, such that multiple simultaneous and independent lines of effort, capable of being defeated individually, are combined to confuse and overwhelm a defender before they can formulate a coherent response to the aggressor either in detail or in aggregate. Much attention has been paid to the challenges posed by China’s efforts at territorial aggrandizement via the physical reclamation of land on Chinese-occupied maritime features, and its pursuit of local military dominance by the expansion of anti-access/area denial envelopes, both through the construction of air, naval, and missile facilities on new artificial island structures and through the increased presence of high-end mobile naval forces of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. At its core, however, the decisive component and center of gravity of the struggle now transpiring in the South China Sea is the contest between two mutually exclusive legal systems of authority, namely the rule of current international law versus China’s continentalist revisionism.
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