The Looming Crisis in the South China Sea
As China increasingly threatens to use force against Taiwan, the United States is rightly focused on the dangers of conflict over the island. But there is an equal risk of crisis, confrontation, and even war over a different area—the South China Sea. China is aggressively pursuing its claims throughout the sea, through which over $3 trillion in trade flows each year. Over the last decade, Beijing has built military bases on a series of reclaimed islands and harassed other countries that claim rights in the sea. Most recently, it has raised the risk of disaster by unsafely intercepting ships and aircraft belonging to the United States and its allies.
Tensions are especially high between China and the Philippines in the long-running standoff over the Second Thomas Shoal. For years, the Philippines has maintained its claim to the submerged coral reef within its exclusive economic zone through a jury-rigged outpost—an aging tank landing ship, the Sierra Madre, that the Philippine navy ran aground on the shoal 25 years ago. Over the last year, Chinese ships have used water cannons, lasers, and ramming to threaten Philippine resupply missions.
With the Sierra Madre now in danger of falling to pieces, the Philippines will soon need to rebuild the outpost, a step that Beijing has said it will not accept. In January, meanwhile, the Philippines announced plans to fortify as many as nine disputed maritime areas under its control. All this makes the risk of a direct military confrontation in the South China Sea higher than ever—and the United States has repeatedly promised to stand by the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951. If Beijing directly attacks Philippine ships, Washington would be compelled to respond.
To make matters more complex, any future South China Sea crisis is likely to highlight an obvious weakness in the United States’ larger strategy on China: it embodies no clear vision of success. U.S. officials have said that they are not trying to engineer a Cold War–style transformation of the Chinese system, such as the end of Chinese Communist Party rule. A comprehensive U.S. victory in a war with China is hardly possible. As a result, Washington has been unable to define what success looks like and how U.S. strategy is designed to produce it. These shortcomings are likely to be front and center in a new crisis, as Washington would struggle to respond in a way that makes progress toward clear long-term objectives.
In the near term, a military confrontation seems unlikely, in part because Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has been struggling to revive China’s stagnating economy and solidify political control at home, has shown a desire to ease tensions with the United States. But ever more frequent maritime incidents and provocations in the South China Sea almost guarantee a crisis. When one occurs, it will mark an inflection point in U.S. strategy toward China. Such an event will drive home the lesson that simply opposing Chinese power and ambitions—whether by stacking up barriers to Beijing’s capabilities and influence or shoring up deterrence—will not by itself underwrite a strategic relationship that can survive the coming decade.
In its broader strategy toward China, the United States must compete vigorously, but it must also lay the groundwork for a stable relationship with Beijing that can, at some point, transition into a mutually respectful form of coexistence. This is the only credible medium-term outcome of the U.S.-Chinese rivalry short of war. For the United States, this means matching obstruction with bold multilateral approaches to regulate issues of dispute with China. A crisis in the South China Sea will provide a perilous but unmissable opportunity to move in such a direction.
WAIT AND SEA
It is easy to exaggerate China’s intent to dominate the world. A combination of expanding maritime capabilities, nationalism, and entrenched interests of the one-party state has produced a pattern of behavior in Beijing that often looks like a drive for hegemony but may be as much about momentum as any formal plan for global supremacy. Yet it is now difficult to deny that Beijing seeks to be the predominant power of Asia and wants to exercise a veto over the most important military and geopolitical actions of other countries. One important piece of this agenda is China’s effort to force rival claimants out of its way in the South China Sea.
Beijing’s risk tolerance in this campaign appears to be growing. In recent years, it has accelerated the pace of coercive actions against not only the Philippines but also Indonesia and Vietnam. It has dramatically stepped up risky maneuvering near U.S. and allied ships and aircraft: in the last two years alone, Chinese ships and planes instigated almost 300 such incidents, more than the total of the entire previous decade, according to a report from the U.S. Defense Department. And since mid-2023, China has continually hounded Philippine vessels attempting to resupply the Sierra Madre. The South China Sea dispute has thus become a test of a rising autocratic power’s ability to impose its will on smaller neighbors.
As a result, the South China Sea is also providing a verdict on Washington’s willingness to stand by those who resist Beijing’s bullying. To signal this commitment, the United States has already reinforced its position in the region. Since 2019, it has consistently maintained that the U.S.-Philippine defense treaty covers attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft. It has held joint patrols and exercises with Australia, Canada, and Japan. In December, it conducted freedom of navigation operations close to Second Thomas Shoal for the first time. Washington has also announced new military aid and sales to the Philippines for maritime security and self-defense. But the perception remains that China is slowly gaining control of the sea, and a new crisis would pose a critical test of U.S. commitments.
It is easy to exaggerate China’s intent to dominate the world.
Xi has strong reasons to restrain China’s aggressiveness for the time being: slowing growth, a real estate sector in crisis, falling stocks, declining consumer confidence, and an escalating anticorruption drive that hints at deeper political issues. Beijing may also sense that it was becoming too belligerent for its own good and may not want to goad the United States in an election year. China may therefore be less bellicose for the time being. But the structural realities of disputes in the South China Sea—the collision course over the Second Thomas Shoal, U.S. insistence on air and maritime transits, renewed clashes over fishing rights and energy exploration—seem bound to lead to further escalation. When that happens, the United States may decide it needs to respond more vigorously than in the past. Like it or not, contesting Chinese coercion in the South China Sea is now a prominent way to measure U.S. resolve. Washington’s scope for playing the long game is diminishing.
A new South China Sea crisis could take many forms. It could be set off by a sudden Chinese move to militarize Scarborough Shoal, another atoll in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, which China seized from the Philippines in 2012. Or it could involve a deadly clash over the Sierra Madre, or perhaps a midair collision precipitated by Chinese aircraft maneuvering close to U.S. or allied planes in the region. When such a crisis arises, the United States will have a rich menu of responses to choose from to form a more muscular response.
Building on its growing military ties, Washington could deploy military forces to the scene of a clash and directly support beleaguered U.S. allies. It could launch an information campaign, including the selective release of intelligence, to highlight Chinese belligerence and generate a global reaction. It could further expand its regional military presence and announce a new series of exercises in contested waters. It might organize a multilateral effort to boost military aid and arms sales to regional partners and quickly assemble new cooperative defense programs, such as one to deploy large numbers of inexpensive air and maritime drones. It could even consider selectively expanding security guarantees—arguing, for example, that it will view aggressive moves against Vietnamese assets as a threat to international security that would justify some form of U.S. response.
One part of a U.S. crisis response, therefore, must convey strength and commitment, both to U.S. allies and partners and to Beijing. The time has come for the United States to send a firmer message about the limits of what Washington and its allies will tolerate in China’s piece-by-piece bid for regional control.
AGREE TO AGREE
Beyond merely punishing China for aggression, however, the United States can use a new crisis to take tentative but important steps toward transcending the current zero-sum rivalry. As the Cold War progressed, the United States and the Soviet Union made halting but critical progress toward stabilizing their relationship, such as by establishing the Antarctic Treaty, the Test Ban Treaty, the Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and various hotlines and rules of engagement governing military operations. These agreements gradually built a sense of mutual toleration, strengthened diplomatic relationships, and placed limits on certain zones of competition. Later, more significant accords—including the Helsinki Final Act and major nuclear arms agreements—limited competition in more profound ways. The process took decades and was punctuated with crises and war scares, but it was essential in complementing deterrence in the long-term U.S. effort to fashion a successful, and peaceful, end to the Cold War.
It is telling that the formula for the United States’ China strategy offered by Secretary of State Antony Blinken—“invest, align, and compete”—does not include an explicit pillar aimed at building the sinews of coexistence. The U.S. approach seems to assume that checking Chinese ambition will be enough to produce stability and that, when tensions rise, a spate of bilateral dialogues—as is underway now—can soothe the relationship. But that is an ad hoc and risky way of moderating a major rivalry. Absent larger diplomatic initiatives, it is tempting fate to assume that mutual deterrence will be enough to limit the contest to a polite series of disputes. Washington’s reliance on the idea that good judgment will prevail over tensions may instead invite an unending series of intense crises.
This missing leg of U.S. strategy—a willingness to devote serious effort, and compromise, to find sustainable bargains on certain key issues—is also an essential precondition for long-term success in the rivalry. As has happened before with pairs of rivals, the United States may eventually be able to steer its contest with China into a less paranoid, hostile, and mistrustful relationship. Competition and deterrence are critical to such an outcome: Chinese leaders must be convinced that hegemony is not an option. But history suggests that any route to eventual reconciliation must also include formalized agreements that create a world in which both sides feel safe.
In a 2019 RAND study, my colleagues and I looked at the factors that tend to moderate great-power rivalries. The most important was what could be called a shared status quo—a situation in which the two sides agree, at least for a significant period of time, on the elements of an order that provides for the vital interests of both. A good example might be the many accords and negotiations—including the 1971 Four Power Agreement on Berlin, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, and the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction Talks that began in 1973—that together implied an emerging, shared agreement on some elements of a peaceful status quo in Europe. Of course, the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union continued. The Reagan administration, for example, sought to end Soviet rule in its Eastern European satellites. But a set of formal and informal rules emerged that set important limits on the contest. Such mutual visions don’t typically arise just because two countries are exhausted from competing with each other but require conscious effort by each side to develop initiatives that temper the confrontation. Despite modest outreach to China on issues such as climate change and artificial intelligence, serious attempts to pursue such agreements are largely absent from Washington’s strategy today.
This omission is understandable: such efforts seem pointless as long as Chinese leaders are unwilling to subscribe to any stable status quo that constrains their ambitions. China is still on the upswing of its power; unlike the fatigued Soviet Union of the 1970s, it does not perceive the need to pursue détente with its primary rival, at least not yet. But the United States needs to test the limits of China’s openness to talks on key issues, such as the status of the South China Sea. Even if it does not produce near-term agreements, the pursuit of concrete accords can demonstrate a willingness to accept lasting settlements that respect Chinese interests—and demonstrate to others that U.S. strategy is not all about competing and opposing.
The shock and fear created by a major crisis in the South China Sea could provide a critical opportunity to push for such a framework for the region. Even as the United States responds in a strong and credible way during the crisis, it can call for a comprehensive, multilateral diplomatic conference on South China Sea issues, including territorial and maritime claims, natural resource extraction, depletion of fisheries, and the presence of outside militaries. Washington could argue that the crisis proves that regional disputes are leading to violent confrontation and the time has come to push for principles of peaceful coexistence.
The U.S. position on such a diplomatic initiative could build on several foundations, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the 2016 Hague ruling on regional claims, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ drive to achieve a code of conduct that would spell out clear rules governing the pursuit of territorial and maritime interests in the South China Sea. China and ASEAN agreed in July to make fresh efforts in the direction of such a code by 2026. Many will be skeptical of the potential for any agreement: China rejects the Hague ruling and has used the code of conduct process to delay action while it steadily imposes its control over the region.
But with a new crisis as evidence, the United States could argue that this time is different: the world is headed for a perilous series of confrontations, and the only alternative is to establish the regional equivalent of a shared status quo. The United States will need strong multilateral support for such an initiative—not only from countries in Southeast Asia but also from European countries, India, Japan, South Korea, and many others. And Washington will have to be open to making concessions of its own, such as giving advance notification of military transits and perhaps even limits on U.S.-led military exercises in the South China Sea.
China will be wary and resistant, viewing the offer as another U.S. scheme to undermine its ambitions. But the danger posed by the crisis and the new wave of global demands for negotiations could force Beijing to be more flexible. Moreover, the promised U.S. diplomatic and military responses to the crisis can pose Beijing with a clear dilemma: the alternative to a negotiated solution would be a surge in U.S. regional presence and partnerships. There is an advantage to trying, moreover, even if the effort fails at first. Washington can demonstrate clearly which great power is truly interested in peaceful coexistence, and even partial and limited stabilizing agreements can make a difference. Building a shared status quo is the work of decades, not months or years.
If such a diplomatic initiative produces tangible results, it would have echo effects beyond the U.S.-Chinese relationship. The United States will have taken an important step in what should be its primary foreign policy imperative: leading the world toward a refreshed, more multilateral international order, one that is less U.S.-centric yet still reflects the international norms and structures that are most critical to U.S. interests. The United States has led the world out of disasters to new forms of coexistence and stability before. If current tensions in the South China Sea escalate into a major confrontation, it will have the chance to do so again.