- Research Programs
- Regions & Topics
- All Publications
A nation must think before it acts.
Shortly after his inauguration, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement. That raised concerns among U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific as to whether the new American president was intent on further retrenchment from the region at a time when his predecessor’s “pivot to Asia” had already proven disappointing. But the Trump administration’s headline-grabbing efforts to remake the terms of America’s economic relations around the world obscured its increasing willingness to challenge China not only on trade, but also in terms of security. Nowhere has that been truer than in the South China Sea, where China is embroiled in disputes with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. In July 2020, the United States shed the last remnants of its hands-off policy in the region and formally rejected Chinese maritime claims there.
For decades, the United States had pursued a policy that was once described as “scrupulous noninvolvement” in the maritime disputes of the South China Sea. But China’s growing assertiveness in those waters during the early 2010s eventually led President Barack Obama’s administration to begin shifting American policy towards a firmer stance. In 2013, it stationed a U.S. Navy littoral combat ship on a rotational basis in Singapore. The next year, it published maps that cast doubt on China’s “nine-dash line” claim. And the year after that, it resumed the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation operations within 12 nautical miles of Chinese outposts in the South China Sea. Unfortunately for the administration, its incremental approach did little to deter Beijing. By the time Obama left office, China was well on its way to completing several artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago and fitting them with airfields, ports, radars, and other military facilities (contravening Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping’s own pledge not to militarize the islands).
When Trump succeeded Obama as president, he briefly halted his predecessor’s military measures in the South China Sea. While the move may have been calculated to help Trump recast America’s wider relationship with China, it proved to be a short-lived one. Less than a year later, with a trade war between the two countries looming, the Trump administration switched gears and took a much harder line with Beijing. Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis openly warned of “larger consequences” if China did not restrain its behavior in the region. The U.S. Navy added a second littoral combat ship in Singapore and stepped up its freedom of navigation patrols, making them “more regular and strident.” The number of those patrols increased from a sparing two or three per year during the last two years of the Obama administration to nine in 2019.
The following spring, the United States seemed to decide that it would respond more directly to Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Its first chance to do so was not long in coming. China had already sent a survey ship, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, and several of its coast guard and maritime militia vessels into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone to harass a Petronas-chartered drillship, the West Capella, and perform their own seismic surveys. It is a tactic that China has often used in waters it disputes with Vietnam. But in April, the United States intervened with a significant show of force. A U.S. expeditionary strike group of three warships, including an amphibious assault ship with F-35 fighters aboard, and an Australian frigate sailed to the disputed area and conducted a naval exercise there. In addition, both of the U.S. Navy’s Singapore-based littoral combat ships and two pairs of American B-1 bombers from Guam and the continental United States carried out separate patrols of the area over the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, in a rare public statement, the U.S. Pacific Fleet announced that it had simultaneously sortied all of its forward-deployed nuclear attack submarines into the Western Pacific to help counter Chinese actions in the South China Sea. The episode marked the first time the United States mounted such a robust challenge to China over the contested waters.
As large as it was, the episode was overshadowed by what occurred two months later. On July 4, the United States deployed two aircraft carrier strike groups, based around the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, to conduct naval exercises in the South China Sea, near where a Chinese navy and coast guard flotilla were holding amphibious drills at the same time. Even more unusual was the return of both aircraft carrier strike groups after only two weeks to conduct tactical air defense exercises on the heels of a Chinese deployment of four J-10 fighters to Woody Island in the Paracel Islands. Together, the two naval exercises were the largest that the United States has held in the region for nearly a decade.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced China’s maritime claims as “completely unlawful” and declared that America would align its policy with the 2016 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration to reject them. The tribunal’s decision came after Beijing failed to demonstrate any legal basis in international law for its “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea. Hence, Pompeo contended that China has no right to any exclusive economic zones around its artificial islands; no right to harass the fishing or energy exploration activities of other countries; and “no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region.” Never before had the United States set out its policy on the South China Sea so clearly—or forcefully.
Many reasons have been offered to explain the recently hardened American stance. One (and probably the most obvious) is the deteriorating relationship between China and the United States. After all, both countries are still at odds over trade, cyber espionage, Taiwan, and, most recently, China’s tightening grip over Hong Kong. Another may be the desire of the United States to reassure its allies of its military capabilities, especially after the novel coronavirus laid up the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt for much of April. Still another is America’s frustration with China. For decades, Washington hoped to integrate China into a “rules-based international order.” But Beijing, refusing to abide by rules it did not help craft, has continued to browbeat its Southeast Asian neighbors. But perhaps the most straightforward reason deals with China’s history of opportunism in the South China Sea: the fear that Beijing will take advantage of a world distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic to further expand its presence in the region.
Indeed, in the past, Beijing made its greatest strides in the South China Sea during such times. Taking advantage of local power vacuums, China has repeatedly pushed its maritime and territorial boundaries outward over the last forty-some years. Rather than risk large-scale confrontations, China has incrementally seized territory from other claimant countries only at times when either they could not count on the support of their superpower allies or those allies had become distracted or weakened themselves.
In 1974, China seized the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam after it became apparent that its Vietnam War-weary ally, the United States, was unlikely to come to its aid. Then, in 1988, China seized Johnston South Reef from Vietnam at a time when its superpower patron, the Soviet Union, was disengaging from Southeast Asia. And in 1995, China seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines, which a few years earlier closed America’s two largest military bases in the region, badly straining relations between the two treaty allies and leaving the Philippines virtually defenseless.
Beijing refrained from provocative actions in the South China Sea for most of the first decade of the 2000s, a time when American power (and Washington’s apparent willingness to use it) was at its zenith. But after the United States became divided over conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, China’s opportunistic behavior returned. It increased its harassment of Southeast Asian fishing and energy exploration vessels and began to build artificial islands—slowly at first, but then faster after Obama’s “pivot to Asia” turned out to be more bark than bite. The construction of artificial islands enabled China to not only fortify its claims, but also expanded its ability to monitor and control the seas around them. One day, they could help China maintain an air defense identification zone over them, too.
Given its new stance in the South China Sea, the United States has implicitly accepted a larger and more active role in the region. On that score, some might think optimism is warranted, especially in Southeast Asia. American power seems to be precisely what the region needs to balance China. On the other hand, questions remain. Will the new American policy be durable? And, more importantly, will it be effective?
Regarding the first question, Southeast Asian leaders are sure to have doubts. Cynics are apt to point out that the recent American show of force near the West Capella lasted only days, in waters where naval standoffs can drag on for months. Indeed, the American-led warships left the scene well before the Chinese ones did. More broadly, those leaders may be skeptical simply because of the fact that it took Washington decades to lay out a clear policy, hardly a signal of firm resolve. Along with that, they must also wonder whether the United States might someday bargain away its new policy in the South China Sea for the right trade deal with China. And so, most Southeast Asian countries probably are inclined to wait and see how the new American policy plays out a bit more. For the moment, they will probably not get their hopes up too high, especially on the eve of a U.S. presidential election.
Perhaps the bigger question is how effective will the new American policy be because China may no longer behave as opportunistically as it once did. Over the last decade, the enormous growth of China’s military power has rapidly narrowed the capability gap between it and the United States. So much so that Beijing has probably come to believe that it is only a matter of time before it can act with complete impunity in the South China Sea. The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper already intimated as much. Even analysts in Australia, a country closely allied with the United States, now think America has lost its military primacy and question whether it can ensure a favorable balance of power in the Western Pacific. So, for its new policy to be effective, Washington will have to demonstrate that it is committed to maintaining its military edge. To do so, it must make a bigger investment in its naval, air, and cyber warfare capabilities. In the end, only that will persuade Beijing that time is not on its side.
Still, Southeast Asian countries must do their part, too. That means less fence-sitting and more security cooperation. Unfortunately for them, many of their leaders have grown accustomed to avoiding any choice between their national sovereignty and what they perceive as the driver of their economic prosperity: China. But as China grows more unyielding, that refusal has begun to look less like a hopeful search for a third way than a case of burying one’s head in the sand and hoping that difficult issues go away. Should such Southeast Asian reticence persist, it will erode the effectiveness of America’s new hard-line policy. For however durable or strong that policy may be, the United States will find it difficult to protect the interests of those who are diffident about protecting themselves.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
 Selig S. Harrison, China, Oil, and Asia: Conflict Ahead? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), p. 5.
 The Obama administration halted the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea in 2012.
 The USS Ronald Reagan returned to the South China Sea for more naval exercises in August 2020.
 Ashley Townshend, Brendan Thomas-Noone, and Matilda Steward, Averting Crisis: American Strategy, Military Spending and Collective Defence in the Indo-Pacific (Sydney: University of Sydney, 2019), pp. 9-11.