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Assessing U.S. Policy In The South China Sea

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Assessing U.S. Policy In The South China Sea
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A recent CNA Corporation report assessed current U.S. policy on the South China Sea and found it to be comprehensive and balanced. United States policy focuses on creating stability by exhorting all parties to follow the rules of international law.

It also explicitly defines how Washington would like conflicts to be solved. Moreover, it includes hard-power initiatives, such as rotationally stationing U.S. Navy warships in Singapore, the new military access agreement with the Philippines, the partial lifting of the arms embargo against Vietnam, and collaboration with Manila on improving its naval capacity. These are aimed at improving U.S. naval and air posture close to the South China Sea as well as redressing some of the capabilities imbalances between the Philippines, Vietnam, and China. Finally, it incorporates elements of traditional deterrence by affirming America’s security alliance with the Philippines.



On the other hand, U.S. policy implicitly acknowledges that the South China Sea is not the central strategic element in the overall U.S.-China relationship. The South China Sea was clearly not the centerpiece of the November 2014 Obama-Xi summit in Beijing: climate change, North Korea, Taiwan, trade and cyber issues were the focuses of this exchange. Our CNA study endorses this issue hierarchy, and argues that, in practice, U.S. South China Sea policy should not be overwhelmingly anti-Chinese. The United States should criticize Chinese behavior, along with the behavior of American friends and allies, when warranted. Finally, when it comes to the South China Sea, Washington should not bluff. In other words it should not announce policies it is not prepared to back-up.


The United States should reinforce its existing policy that international law is the basis for rules-based stability by issuing a comprehensive white paper on the various aspects of international law that are being abused by China and other claimants in the South China Sea. Because the focus on international law has been such a centerpiece of U.S. policy, this authoritative document should be signed by the Secretary of State and given appropriate publicity.


U.S. officials have publicly supported the Philippines’ request for arbitration, but if the arbitral tribunal rules that it does not have jurisdiction over this case, it will be a major setback and quash hopes that international law can be the basis for shaping the behavior of parties involved in South China Sea disputes. The Department of State should publicly highlight the importance of allowing the Philippines to have “its day in court,” for the sake of resolving the Philippines-PRC dispute and for the important precedent this arbitration may set.