By Roy Mabasa
Two accomplished foreign policy and defense security experts have proposed several options that the United States can use for countering China’s offensive in the South China Sea.
In their recently published paper, Getting Serious About Strategy in the South China Sea, Hal Brands and Zack Cooper were quick to emphasize that Washington’s own “core interests are not really at stake” in the South China Sea.
Still, they argued that China’s offensive in the volatile region is not simply a matter of who controls “a bunch of rocks on the other side of the world” but a challenge to a series of key US interests in the South China Sea and the broader Asia-Pacific region.
These interests include economic, military and geopolitical interests.
Thus, Brands and Cooper said it is imperative that US leaders follow at least four basic strategies to be able to steer the proper course in a turbulent South China Sea:
According to the two experts, the first strategy aims to push China back from its recent gains in the South China Sea and restore the status quo ante.
However, they noted that this option “accepts a substantial likelihood of military conflict as the price of attaining this ambitious objective.”
Should the risks associated with Rollback prove restrictive, the two experts said the US can turn to a second strategic option: Containment.
“The goal of Containment would be to stop China from using force or coercion to alter any element of the status quo in the South China Sea, and particularly to prevent it from building additional features or seizing features held by other nations,” Brands and Cooper pointed out in their paper published by the Naval War College Review
They noted that Containment accepts Chinese gains made to date, in recognition of just how difficult and dangerous it would be to reverse those gains, but draws the line firmly—including by threat or use of military force—against further advances.
If US leaders are not willing to accept the risks inherent in more-aggressive strategies, a third option would be to focus on Offsetting and penalizing Chinese gains rather than directly preventing them.
“Washington would respond to Chinese moves in the South China Sea by imposing costs—diplomatic, economic, and otherwise—on Beijing,” Brands and Cooper stressed. “It also would work creatively to strengthen the relative positions of the United States and its allies and partners.”
The fourth and final strategy available to the US is Accommodation, the two defense experts said.
In contrast to the first three strategies, the goal of Accommodation is not to stop Beijing’s destabilizing behavior ultimately, or even to maintain a dominant position in the South China Sea and the broader Asia-Pacific region.
According to Brands and Cooper, the goal, rather, is primarily to avoid conflict with China over the South China Sea, with a subsidiary objective of conserving the resources that would be needed to compete more effectively.
They emphasized that none of these strategies is perfect, and each has substantial liabilities that accompany its advantages.
“In the final analysis, however, a strategy that blends the most-compelling aspects of Containment and Offset is best suited for protecting US interests at a reasonable cost,” said Brands, a former special assistant to the US Secretary of Defense for strategic planning. and Cooper, a Senior Fellow for Asian Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“America has limped along without a clear or coherent approach in the South China Sea for several years. Now is the time to get serious about strategy—before it is too late.”