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Beyond Imposing Costs: Recalibrating U.S. Strategy in the South China Sea

Joel Wuthnow

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This essay assesses how U.S. strategy in the South China Sea can be optimized to retain military superiority while addressing the risk of instability resulting from a clash with China.

Main Argument

U.S. policy in the South China Sea has failed to fully address two problems: China’s continuing buildup of military and paramilitary power in the region, and the risk of an incident at sea escalating into major conflict. The main alternative to current policy focuses on imposing political, economic, and military costs on China to deter further militarization of the region. However, this approach risks spoiling cooperation on risk-reduction measures while pushing Beijing toward even greater regional militarization. Instead of a fundamental revision, U.S. strategy should be recalibrated through sustained cooperation at a practical level, more finely tuned deterrence measures, and clearer and more consistent messaging. Nevertheless, U.S. options will continue to be constrained by the need for broader stability in Sino-U.S. relations as well as by China’s inherent resolve. It will be up to the Trump administration to exert the political will necessary to refine U.S. strategy.

Policy Implications

  • U.S. policymakers will have to balance the competing demands of improving communication during a crisis with Beijing and strengthening deterrence. The latter goal needs to be focused squarely on preventing Chinese military domination within the South China Sea and should consist of unilateral military enhancements, stronger partnerships with Japan and others, and progressively clear commitments to the Philippines.
  • A linchpin of effective strategy is delivering a consistent and clear message to Chinese interlocutors about U.S. intentions. Care should be taken to direct this message to the appropriate audience and avoid unnecessarily incendiary rhetoric.