Writing for Foreign Affairs, former Joe Biden advisor Ely Ratner argues that the Obama administration failed to define credible consequences for China’s militarization of the South China Sea, thus enabling Beijing’s steady gains there:
In 2015, […] U.S. President Barack Obama said in a joint press conference with Xi, “The United States welcomes the rise of a China that is peaceful, stable, prosperous, and a responsible player in global affairs.” Yet Washington never made clear what it would do if Beijing failed to live up to that standard… The United States’ desire to avoid conflict meant that nearly every time China acted assertively or defied international law in the South China Sea, Washington instinctively took steps to reduce tensions, thereby allowing China to make incremental gains. […]
U.S. policymakers should recognize that China’s behavior in the sea is based on its perception of how the United States will respond. The lack of U.S. resistance has led Beijing to conclude that the United States will not compromise its relationship with China over the South China Sea. As a result, the biggest threat to the United States today in Asia is Chinese hegemony, not great-power war. U.S. regional leadership is much more likely to go out with a whimper than with a bang.
Later, Ratner suggests the kind of “course correction” that the U.S. could still lead to change China’s calculus in the region:
In order to alter China’s incentives, the United States should issue a clear warning: that if China continues to construct artificial islands or stations powerful military assets, such as long-range missiles or combat aircraft, on those it has already built, the United States will fundamentally change its policy toward the South China Sea. Shedding its position of neutrality, Washington would stop calling for restraint and instead increase its efforts to help the region’s countries defend themselves against Chinese coercion.
Will President Trump be able to implement the kind of forceful strategy Ratner has in mind? The jury is still out. Here at TAI, we have been encouraged to see the Administration recently launch a freedom-of-navigation operation (FONOP) after initial passivity, and Defense Secretary Mattis testified this week that such exercises would be a routine part of the strategy going forward. But it will take more than such exercises to prevent Chinese hegemony in the region—and Ratner’s article lays out a particularly muscular approach to change the game to our advantage.