Getting Serious About Strategy in the South China Sea

America is suffering from a strategy deficit in the South China Sea. For nearly a decade—and at accelerated speed since 2014—Beijing has been salami slicing its way to a position of primacy in that critical international waterway, while eroding the norms and interests Washington long has sought to defend. To date, however, Washington has struggled to articulate an effective response. The Obama administration opposed Chinese maritime expansion rhetorically and worked to improve the overall American military and geopolitical posture in the Asia-Pacific. Yet the administration only occasionally mustered the leverage necessary to check China’s quest for dominance of the South China Sea, and often it was unable even to impose substantial long-term costs on Beijing for its short-term assertiveness. For its part, the Trump administration has yet to formulate or implement a coherent South China Sea strategy, and it has swung from suggesting that America might deny Chinese access to islands in the South China Sea physically—something approaching an act of war—to appearing subsequently to deprioritize the issue.