According to a study from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), China has put installations on four islands in the Paracel group and significant installations on eight islands in the Spratly group. As before, China moved incrementally to avoid triggering a major Western reaction. The Obama administration has taken a few symbolic steps to defend freedom of navigation in the region, but they have had no evident effect on Chinese behavior. On Thursday, China’s navy seized an underwater drone collecting data for a U.S. Navy oceanographic vessel.
China may be taking advantage of the transition to President-elect Donald Trump. We don’t yet know Mr. Trump’s plans for what he has said should be a more muscular approach to China across all fronts. But a more forceful Western response in the South China Sea is overdue. Freedom of navigation and flight exercises could be enlarged. A revised, powerful declaratory policy, a new mechanism for cooperation among the allies, and stationing more U.S. forces and equipment around the region, as recommended in the recent CSBA study, are all worth careful consideration. The United States and its allies must insist on peaceful resolution of the territorial disputes — and judge Mr. Xi by actions rather than unreliable words.