The US-China relationship is entering a new phase. Beijing has become more confident, global and assertive. In a relationship that has unique cooperative and competitive elements, none will stress that relationship more than those concerning the South China Sea.

The combination of competing national claims, nationalism, advances in seabed extraction technology and recent interpretations of exclusive economic zones under the UN Law of the Sea all make for a combustible environment.

Operating below the level of military aggression, China's strategy for the region is clear. It seeks to make enforceable the strongest possible claim to actual civil control of the South China Sea, leading eventually to formal legal control.

To that end, China is expanding its administrative claims to the entire South China Sea. It is also asserting physical control at specific points through the use of coast guard vessels to protect its fishing rights and to chase others off. It is deploying flotillas of fishing and maritime enforcement ships to protect the interests of a national oil company while drilling in disputed waters and now physically enlarging and developing atolls in the Paracel islands, 750 miles south of China.

While carefully avoiding the use of its increasingly modern southern fleet, it is nonetheless playing a supportive over-the-horizon role.

American efforts to protect its interests against this campaign have been ineffective. In its public statements, the US takes no position on the disputed claims and then calls for peaceful resolution of disputes. Meanwhile, the governments in the area rush to establish their claims, with China accounting for about three quarters of the individual activities.

The US must achieve two objectives: first, protecting the global commons and preserving the freedom to operate its naval and air forces and civilian vessels throughout the South China Sea; second, preventing Chinese domination of the region through military and economic coercion and unilateral civil aggression.

Recent American statements have been more definitive about US interests, but have not amounted to a strategy.

American objectives for the South China Sea must be a part of our larger strategy toward China that welcomes a greater Chinese economic and diplomatic role. But it must set clear boundaries on Chinese expansion of its territory by coercion or conquest, and on its ability to deny the United States full freedom of action in the Western Pacific.

Any plan to carry out that strategy should consist of several elements:

  • A diplomatic agreement that all the claimant countries but China, as well as outside countries, can support. With or without China's participation, the other four claimants with conflicting claims — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — need to fashion a common settlement that allocates territory and resources among them. Chinese claims to territory and resources should be judged and included in any settlement. Because of the tangled history and geography of the region, such a settlement would include many territorial compromises, agreements to share resources and perhaps internationalization of some features.
  • The agreement should also ensure freedom of the seas, as provided in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. To that end, a coalition of leading seafaring nations should become stakeholders in this process.
  • Once such an agreement is in place, then the United States can take a series of actions — legal, civil and military — to support it. The United States should not turn immediately to military power such as military shows of force and freedom of navigation exercises. We can assist Vietnam, the Philippines and other claimants to develop and protect their territory, we can support joint development of the natural resources of the area, and we can reinforce freedom of the seas outside of territorial waters. We should initiate actions in all these areas, without exclusive use of military maneuvers.

American policy in many areas has become too concentrated on military action rather than wise policy and solid strategy supported by judicious application of military force. In the interest of a stable US-China relationship, a peaceful resolution of the disputes in the South China Sea is an issue we must get right.

Dennis Blair is CEO of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and former commander in chief of US Pacific Command, and Jon Huntsman, is chairman of the Atlantic Council and former US ambassador to China.

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