China / Foreign Policy / National Security

Next Steps for the U.S. in the South China Sea

Guided Missile Destroyer USS Lassen

Guided Missile Destroyer USS Lassen

With headlines like, “Showdown in the South China Sea,” a casual observer might believe that the U.S. is on the brink of war. After America sailed the destroyer USS Lassen near one of China’s artificial islands as part of a “Freedom of Navigation Operation” (FONOP), China’s rhetoric became inflamed. China has decried the U.S.’ actions as provocative, and announced that they are prepared to defend their islands with military force. The fact of the matter though, is that neither side has engaged in provocation or escalatory actions since the Lassen’s mission. The recent FONOP has paved the way for the U.S.’ next move, which should be beginning preparations for securing an internationally recognized agreement to settle the Spratly Island issue once and for all.

The Chinese media would have us all believe that the U.S.’ FONOP was an unwarranted invasion of Chinese sovereign territory, attempting to goad them into open warfare. The reality of the matter is that China was bluffing on its willingness to defend islands which it, for all intents and purposes, constructed in the middle of international waters. From a legal standpoint (including the Chinese ratified UNCLOS), the U.S. merely sailed through international waters, as it has been doing for decades. Despite its harsh rhetoric, China has not cancelled any naval port visits or severed any diplomatic channels. Currently there is every indication that China wishes to resolve their concerns peacefully. The recent FONOP has made both sides’ positions clear: The U.S. will not tolerate any threats to the openness of sea lanes, and China is not willing to engage in open confrontation over historical claims.

The Spratly Islands are not the actual core issue though, but they represent the difference between interests and position. A party to a negotiation always claims to want more than they are willing to settle for, and recognizing this distinction is crucial for successful negotiation. Halfhearted past attempts to resolve the Spratly Islands issue have failed to broker agreements that account for this.


Image by Johnny Goldstein via Flickr

China wants access to the economic resources of the islands and is willing to construct military assets in the region to achieve such ends. Other nations with claims to the islands are seeking access to the resources as well. The U.S. and its Asian allies (who have become increasingly vocal over the South China Sea) want to ensure that the access of vital sea lanes is not restricted. When looking only at the rhetoric, one would think that all parties involved are seeking control over the South China Sea, but this is only their position. Their actual interests, maritime security and economic access, are varied enough that there is room for cooperation.

However weak China’s claims to the Spratly Islands are, they cannot be ignored. Forcing China out of international agreements or decisions on the fate of the Spratly Islands would lead to them becoming a spoiler, upsetting any peaceful resolutions. Inclusion, even if seen as acquiescence, is a better prospect for long term peace and stability in the South China Sea—an important security and economic interest for the United States.

Recent events have served to define all parties in the South China Sea’s positions and interests, making it the ideal time to pursue an international resolution to settle the issue. From such a resolution, the U.S. should seek to ensure that no country is able to station military assets on the Spratly Islands, as well as limit any country’s permitted naval presence around the islands. This will allow America to ensure that China cannot use the islands to expand the reach of its military, or interfere with maritime security.

On the economic side, an international resolution should fairly establish resource sharing for all claimants. Creation of an intergovernmental body to resolve disputes would ensure the stability and endurance of international agreements. With internationally validated oversight as well as an interest in stability from all parties, the world can avoid any potential for conflict in the South China Sea.

As the traditional defender of maritime security, the U.S. is in the best position to broker such an agreement. The timing is ideal, since it would allow for China to assuage domestic pressure by claiming that their rights to the islands are being recognized. If this opportunity for cooperation is ignored, China will continue to aggressively assert its claim to the islands. The longer this goes on, the more difficult it will become to get China to settle for an agreement that is not reflective of their growing military capabilities in the region.

The U.S.’ FONOP has opened a window of opportunity to bringing peace to the Spratly Islands, but it could be fleeting. As China’s naval strength grows, its willingness to acquiesce to Western interests in maritime security will wane. Failing to address the Spratly Islands issue now will only sow the seeds for conflict in the future. It is a vital U.S. interest that the $5 trillion of maritime trade passing through the South China Sea is not threatened now, or at any point in the future.