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In previewing this week’s inaugural U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton took a question from Anne Gearan of The Washington Post about the Trump Administration’s approach to the South China Sea. Thornton’s short response neatly embodied two major deficiencies in current U.S. policy that are paving the way for a Chinese sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. (I address both in deeper detail and offer alternatives in the July/August edition of Foreign Affairs in a piece entitled, “Course Correction: How to Stop China’s Maritime Advance.”)
First, Thornton repeated the oft-heard U.S. call for China and the other claimants in the South China Sea to cease ongoing militarization of their occupied islands. Thornton noted that, “what we think should happen is that all parties should freeze any construction or militarization of features that they have outposts on.” But here’s the problem: a U.S. preference for non-militarization is not going to change China’s behavior unless it is backed up by clear and credible consequences for what the United States is prepared to do if China continues down the current path of transforming its artificial islands into advanced military bases. As long as China faces little to no costs for its actions, what the United States thinks “should happen” will remain irrelevant.
Second, and related, Thornton concluded by noting that, “We think it’s important that tensions are lowered over these issues.” This revealing comment illustrates the endemic risk aversion in U.S. policy that has come to submerge vital U.S. interests in Asia. Consistent with over a hundred years of U.S. grand strategy, the principal goal of the United States in the South China Sea should be to prevent domination by a rival power, in this case China. Sometimes that may mean trying to lower tensions, but at other times the United States must be comfortable with a more contentious and competitive dynamic. Simply seeking to lower tensions as a policy goal in and of itself has instead created a permissive environment for Chinese assertiveness and militarization. As I wrote with Elbridge Colby in Foreign Policy back in 2014, “China is taking advantage of Washington’s risk aversion by rocking the boat, seeing what it can extract in the process, and letting the United States worry about righting it.” This is still the case today.
If the Trump Administration is serious about preventing Chinese control of the South China Sea, it will have to stop committing these two cardinal sins of U.S. policy.