Vice Chairman Shea, Senator Goodwin, thank you for the opportunity to testify before this distinguished commission on “Hotspots in China’s Maritime Periphery.” In the coming months, U.S. leadership—or its palpable absence—will be among the foremost determinants of security and stability in the South China Sea. For the last several years, the United States has struggled to mount a steady rejoinder to China’s increasing assertiveness in this waterway. Well before the U.S. presidential election, regional states were growing anxious about Washington’s staying power in Southeast Asia. The first few months of the Trump Administration have, however, precipitously accelerated this problem. With no consistent information about how the President intends to approach the South China Sea or the relationship with China, and little indication of the Trump team’s intent to uphold the longstanding international order, regional states, including Vietnam and the Philippines, are hedging against U.S. withdrawal. If Washington hopes to prevent the balance of power in Southeast Asia from shifting in China’s favor in dramatic ways, it must declare its priorities for this vital waterway, and work to meet word with deed before an irreparable power vacuum emerges.
Shifting Sands in the South China Sea
The South China Sea is what political scientists refer to as a “two level game.” On the regional level, it is a complex web of longstanding territorial and maritime disputes among the claimants. But as China has risen and begun to extend its military reach, it has quickly taken on a second dimension as a crucible for great power competition in Asia. These two levels are not always neatly complimentary, and this has been reflected in U.S. policy.
Since 1995, the United States has had a consistent declaratory policy on the South China Sea: it is neutral on the underlying sovereignty claims, but supports the peaceful resolution of disputes, international law, freedom of navigation, and opposes the use of coercion. This declaratory policy is an accurate reflection of U.S. interests in the disputes, narrowly defined—Washington does not have a stake in the sovereignty of any single land feature, but cares deeply that the disputes do not disrupt regional order. To provide leadership on the disputes, the United States has become more involved in ASEAN, supported Code of Conduct negotiations, and worked to build diplomatic coalitions behind shared international principles.
As China has risen and modernized its military, however, a second layer of South China Sea tension has emerged: the great power competition between the United States and China. China has long claimed territory in these waterways, but as its navy and coast guard have grown, so too has its ability to press its claims. The most obvious example of this is China’s island building campaign, through which it has engineered seven sophisticated military bases on former reefs and rocks. This assertiveness has also made longstanding disagreements between the United States and China, such as their interpretations of UNCLOS and the definition and practice of “freedom of navigation” all the more pronounced. Fundamentally, this competition is over whether or not China will succeed in revising the territorial and political status quo in Southeast Asia in its favor. The United States definitively has a vital interest in this layer of the dispute, as Washington cannot guarantee the security of its allies or the free flow of commerce if Beijing carves out a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia.
U.S policymakers have struggled to manage both levels of these disputes simultaneously. Working through consensus-based ASEAN to help guide claimant states is often frustrating, as the 10 members hold very different views of China and of the disputes. Little tangible progress has been made in recent years, and the modest accomplishments have not kept pace with China’s advances. Nonetheless, if the United States disengages diplomatically from Southeast Asia, regional states will quickly conclude that it is unconcerned with their interests and will not support Washington’s. When the United States takes a strong stand against Beijing without sufficient consultation, regional states judge U.S. actions to be escalatory; when the United States fails to push back sufficiently, the same states will conclude that the United States cannot be counted on to provide for their security. Striking an appropriate balance requires significant diplomatic exertion.
Moreover, when they craft their own approaches to the South China Sea, regional players are constantly assessing the degree to which the United States appears to be a dependable presence in diplomatic, economic, and military terms. If it appears insufficiently committed to its regional role, they are more likely to conclude that its longer-term interests are better served by accommodation with Beijing. Regional states’ alignment decisions therefore have the ability to meaningfully shift the regional balance of power. Any successful strategy for the South China Sea requires the United States to engage both levels of these disputes.
The full testimony is available online.