China's campaign of expansion in the South China Sea (scs) threatens the core economic and national security interests of the United States, its partners and the international community. Beijing's actions in the scs are not an isolated challenge, but rather one component of a larger effort to push U.S. and allied military power further back from mainland China. Without a timely, comprehensive and robust response by the United States and its partners, the People's Republic of China's (PRC) aggression may grow more acute.
While the PRC has raised alarms on both sides of the Pacific with its attempted power grab in Hong Kong, its routine violations of human rights, its trade conflicts with the United States and its cyber activities, Beijing's continued campaign of expansion and intimidation against its scs neighbors remains a matter requiring urgent attention. China's numerous provocations in the SCS threaten the free and open system of trade and commerce essential to the prosperity of the United States and its partners. As noted in the Pentagon's strategy for the Indo-Pacific, one-third of global shipping transits the SCS. Indeed, the broader Indo-Pacific region accounts for two-thirds of global economic growth in gross domestic product. Should Beijing establish military hegemony in the scs, the PRC could dictate which nations could and could not transit associated trade routes.
On multiple fronts, the PRC has embraced combative tactics in the scs, ranging from the illegal construction of military island-bases to spurious legal claims regarding the outer limits of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China's SCS strategy also includes the outright intimidation of neighbors and the dangerous, unprofessional harassment of vessels operating in international waters.
The U.S. response to Beijing's coercion campaign will need to draw on capabilities from across the full spectrum of federal agencies. It must begin by strengthening America's military position in the region, which plays an important role in reassuring allies and increasing political leverage. The United States should also further formalize its public affairs and information strategy in order to regain the initiative on the information battlefield. Washington should also lean on executive branch instruments such as the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC), foreign military sales (FMS) and potentially even explore a modified foreign military financing (FMF) program focused specifically on the Indo-Pacific region. America should support these goals in conjunction with its regional partners that likewise have a vested interest in keeping the South China Sea free and open.
The current administration has done much to move U.S. policy in the SCS forward, yet Beijing has done even more to escalate the challenge. America must close the gap between current and optimal U.S. policy.
A major component of China's strategy in the scs involves the use of "gray zone" operations, which, according to the congressionally-mandated National Defense Strategy Commission, take place in the "space between war and peace" and "include everything from strong-arm diplomacy and economic coercion, to media manipulation and cyberattacks, to use of paramilitaries and proxy forces." Gray-zone tactics aim to "confound or gradually weaken an adversary's positions or resolve without provoking a military response."
A common feature of China's gray-zone gambits is the use of spurious legal claims, often supported by concerted propaganda campaigns. A notable example is that, despite a 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that firmly rebuked China's claims in the scs, Beijing continues to flagrantly and systematically assert its "indisputable sovereignty" over the SCS. In practice, this means that China seeks to dominate its scs neighbors by quashing the competing claims of weaker powers such as Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia. For instance, Chinese vessels were caught sabotaging Vietnamese underwater cables in 2011 and seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012. In 2014, the PRC sent an oil rig into disputed offshore territory claimed by Vietnam--an incident during which Vietnamese and Chinese ships rammed one another. Various EEZ disputes between China and its neighbors remain unresolved, as demonstrated by the 2019 flare-up between Beijing and Hanoi. Most importantly, China has illegally claimed features in the South China Sea by building and militarizing numerous artificial islands despite its pledge not to do so.
The PRC'S irregular maritime militia, the People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), implements many of Beijing's maneuvers in the scs. The PAFMM, using numerous ostensibly civilian vessels, harasses the vessels of countries with rival territorial claims while using the PAFMM'S "civilian" legal status as a shield against action. The militia was involved in the harassment of Vietnamese survey ships in 2011, the Scarborough Shoal incident...