Over the past year, there’s been a growing chorus of warnings from the United States that it’s preparing to adopt a more confrontational stance in the South China Sea. With China’s installation of radar jamming equipment and long-range anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles this spring on Fiery Cross Reef – one of China’s seven artificial islands in the disputed Spratly archipelago – the pretense that Chinese President Xi Jinping intended to uphold his vague pledge in 2015 to refrain from militarizing the islands has evaporated. Now, the quiet standoff appears primed to enter a new phase.

Last month, for example, a top U.S. general talked openly about the U.S. ability to destroy Chinese military installations in the South China Sea, and Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. is planning a “steady drumbeat” of naval exercises near Chinese holdings in the disputed waters. In May, the U.S., Japan and Australia agreed to formulate an “action plan” on cooperation in the South China Sea. Even France and the United Kingdom are talking openly about becoming more active in the region. But it’s far from clear what the U.S. and its allies really have in mind. The U.S. has few options that would alter the facts on the ground, and those that would push the Chinese back carry substantial risks. Ultimately, the South China Sea just may not be important enough to the U.S. to take such risks.    

This Deep Dive examines U.S. strategic interests in the South China Sea (or lack thereof) and gauges what may compel the U.S. to push back against Chinese assertiveness there. It then looks at the oft-misunderstood freedom of navigation operations, known as FONOPs – to date, Washington’s favorite tool for dealing with the territorial dispute – and explains why such ops will do little to deter Beijing. Finally, it assesses the United States’ options in the South China Sea should it want to go further in limiting China’s expansion in the hotly contested waters.

U.S. Interests in the South China Sea

The United States is relatively uninterested in who controls a few man-made molehills in the Spratly Islands. But the U.S. would be vitally concerned should any country attempt to use its position to restrict freedom of navigation either for U.S. naval ships or global trade. Some 30 percent of global maritime trade and about half of all global oil tanker shipments pass through the waters each year. Someday, the thinking goes, China could use the reefs that it has turned into remote military outposts, combined with its increasing sea denial, naval, coast guard and maritime militia capabilities, to restrict movement there – or at least threaten to do so – and coerce other countries that rely on the waters. Already, it has begun using them to deny other littoral states the ability to fish, drill for oil and so forth in the disputed waters.

But, at least at present, the U.S. doesn’t need to roll back China’s island-building to keep Beijing from restricting maritime traffic. So long as the U.S. can cut off Chinese commerce flowing through chokepoints along what’s known as the first island chain and through the Malacca and Sunda straits, China likely couldn’t disrupt maritime traffic in the South China Sea, even if it had a good reason to. The Chinese economy would be crippled, and the world would be united against it. Attempting to shut down sea lanes would be an act of desperation. It’s not the kind of thing China could threaten in order to gain leverage against the U.S. in scenarios short of war.

Moreover, for the foreseeable future, the military assets stationed on the artificial islands would likely prove only of marginal value in an all-out conflict between China and the United States. Located more than 700 miles (1,100 kilometers) south of Chinese bases on Hainan, the Spratly bases do effectively expand the range of China’s missiles and bombers. The supersonic YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles and HQ-9B anti-air missiles placed on Fiery Cross Reef in May give China missile coverage over a vast area of the South China Sea, including a base in Palawan expected to host U.S. forces. Three of the artificial islands have runways capable of handling bombers and fighter jets. If China struck first in a conflict, these capabilities would certainly come in handy. But the island bases likely wouldn’t last long. Their locations are fixed and cannot be camouflaged, making them easy pickings for U.S. missiles.

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Still, the U.S. has reasons to want to put an end to China’s militarization of the islands. And since dislodging the Chinese will get only harder as China’s maritime and anti-ship missile capabilities and ranges improve, the U.S. has an interest in acting sooner rather than later. Perhaps the most important reason is to maintain its credibility with its allies and potential partners in the region – those that are already suffering materially from China’s expanding presence. If the U.S. appears to be washing its hands of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, it will heighten the sense among claimant states like the Philippines and Vietnam that the distant U.S. wouldn’t intervene on their behalf.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has a point when he says U.S. disinterest in a war over China-occupied reefs off the Philippine coast has given Manila – a U.S. treaty ally – little choice but to comply when Beijing dictates terms on fishing and resource extraction. To date, the U.S. has declined to confirm that its mutual defense treaty with Manila, which the U.S. has kept vague to avoid getting drawn into a war not of its choosing, even covers the South China Sea. (Further alienating Manila, the U.S. has confirmed that its treaty with Japan covers the disputed Senkaku Islands.) Vietnam’s recent cancellations of two much-needed drilling projects, reportedly under threat from Beijing, spoke louder than words. All this plays into China’s narrative that Southeast Asian states would be wise to accept its ascension as regional hegemon as a fait accompli.

This becomes a problem for U.S. strategy if it leads regional states – the Philippines, in particular – to abandon cooperation with the U.S. at Beijing’s behest and allow China to take up positions that give it access through critical chokepoints. In such a scenario, the U.S. would lose its trump card and its status as traditional guarantor of regional maritime trade. Already, the Duterte administration has been delaying implementation of a landmark pact giving the U.S. rotational access to Philippine bases, including one on Palawan, near the Spratlys.

Thus, the U.S. has been gradually bolstering its presence in the South China Sea to reassure other littoral states and signal to Beijing that the U.S. is not abandoning the region. But the question remains just how much Washington thinks China’s expansion in the disputed waters matters to U.S. interests – and just how far the U.S. is willing to go to protect those interests.

A Primer on Freedom of Navigation Ops

At minimum, the U.S. appears primed to accelerate the pace of freedom of navigation operations. The goals and mechanics of these operations, and how they fit into U.S. strategy in the Western Pacific and beyond, are often mischaracterized. Since we’re likely to be hearing a lot about them in the coming years, it’s worth understanding how they work and what they can and cannot achieve.

The basic goal of FONOPs is to reinforce norms (such as free navigation and maritime law), particularly those outlined under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in 1994. (The U.S. is not an UNCLOS signatory, providing much rhetorical and propaganda fodder to China, which is. Nonetheless, the U.S. treats UNCLOS as customary international law and is effectively its staunchest enforcer.) Since the late 1970s, the U.S. has quietly conducted scores of FONOPs around the world each year, only publicizing them, with minimal detail, in an annual report. China is not the only target; in 2017, the U.S. targeted excessive maritime claims of 22 countries, including allies and partners like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, India and Indonesia.

China’s Claims

In the South China Sea, U.S. FONOPs have taken on a much higher profile, in part because China’s territorial claims are so vast and its violations of UNCLOS have been so flagrant. China has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres of land atop seven reefs that previously were at least partially submerged.

Under UNCLOS, if China’s holdings met the definition of an island – a feature always above water and capable of sustaining human life or economic activity – then they would grant China three things: a territorial sea within the surrounding 12 nautical miles, a contiguous zone between 12 and 24 nautical miles, and an exclusive economic zone extending out 200 nautical miles. A state can exercise sovereign control over a territorial sea, making and enforcing its own laws in the waters (as well as the airspace above) free from outside interference. In an exclusive economic zone, the state has exclusive resource rights. However, if the China-occupied feature were considered merely rock – always above water but incapable of sustaining human life or economic activity – then it would give Beijing a territorial sea and a contiguous zone but no exclusive economic zone. And if determined to be at a low-tide elevation – i.e., a maritime feature that is submerged at high tide – it would generate none of the three. (Transforming a rock or low-tide elevation into an artificial island does not alter its legal character.)

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In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled that all seven of China’s artificial islands in disputed parts of the South China Sea are either rocks or low-tide elevations, not islands, meaning none grant China exclusive resource extraction rights. It also ruled that China’s historical rights to waters within its sweeping “nine-dash line” do not supersede UNCLOS. Importantly, the court did not rule on rightful ownership of any of the reclaimed islands – just that whoever controls them is not entitled to the benefits that would be granted by an island, and thus many of China’s claims and activities are not in accordance with international law. Officially, the U.S. has also stopped short of taking a position on which feature belongs to which country.

What FONOPs Actually Achieve – And What They Don’t

FONOPs are one way for the U.S. to uphold the 2016 international tribunal ruling. The operations can take many forms, depending on what legal point the U.S. is trying to make or the type of excessive maritime claim the U.S. is intending to challenge. Most are focused on reinforcing what’s known as “innocent passage.” Under UNCLOS, a warship from any country is allowed to transit through the territorial waters of another so long as it refrains from activities such as military exercises or surveillance operations, research and survey activities – and so long as it moves “continuously and expeditiously” through the waters. It’s also considered out of step with UNCLOS for a state to demand that ships passing through its territorial waters provide prior notice or obtain permission before doing so, though some countries disagree with this interpretation. Where a country like China is making such demands, the U.S. will often have a warship sail through territorial waters without notice or permission. Narrow point made.

Sometimes, the U.S. will use FONOPs to more pointedly discredit China’s sweeping claims. In May 2017, for example, the USS Dewey sailed near Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation built up by China in the Spratlys some 150 miles from Philippine shores. To assert that the man-made island does not grant China, say, the right to block Philippine fishermen from the area, the U.S. did two things prohibited under the principle of innocent passage: First, it sailed in a zigzag pattern, rather than passing through expeditiously. Second, while within 12 nautical miles of the reef, the crew conducted a man overboard exercise. Both activities implicitly made the point that the U.S. does not consider the waters around Mischief Reef to be Chinese territory. Beijing’s standard response to U.S. FONOPs – tailing the warships with their own and demanding that they promptly leave – is intended to make the opposite point and show the folks back home that they’re “standing up” to the imperialist Americans.

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If all this seems like little more than shadowboxing over legal minutiae, that’s not far from the truth. FONOPs make for good headlines, but they are not an actual deterrent and never were intended to be. Technically, they don’t even assert that the U.S. thinks that China shouldn’t be allowed to occupy the reefs. They don’t generate leverage for the U.S. or punish China for its aggressiveness. Since the U.S. quietly conducts dozens of them each year around the world, and since they work best when conducted at a regular clip, they don’t signal displeasure about an unrelated point of tension with Beijing or serve as warnings of, say, a growing willingness to confront China. They may help reassure allies about U.S. engagement in the region, but they achieve less in this regard than joint exercises would and nothing more than routine operations in international waters would. Mostly, they assert a uniform legal principle and underscore the U.S. role of protector of the high seas. If it could trust China to comply with UNCLOS, the U.S. would likely be satisfied. But recent history shows that making international law the focal point of U.S. strategy would be fruitless. The U.S. has conducted FONOPs around Chinese features at a steady clip since 2016, including at least seven since President Donald Trump took office. They have not altered Beijing’s strategy or behavior in any discernible way.

Going Beyond FONOPs

If the U.S. wants to stop China’s expansion in the South China Sea, it won’t have many clear-cut options for doing so. The problem for the U.S. is its superior firepower can’t be put to much use so long as it’s not willing to pick a fight over other countries’ islands, meaning the U.S. likely wouldn’t be playing to its strengths.

It can attach some costs to Chinese actions, however. For starters, it can ramp up security assistance to Southeast Asian littoral states and better equip them to defend themselves – supporting the U.S. goal of relieving itself of duties as the global policeman and allowing it to better manage regional affairs from afar. It’s already been doing this, to a degree, and growing Japanese security assistance to the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia has amplified U.S. efforts. (Notably, though, the current version of the legislation setting the Pentagon’s budget in 2019 would cut funding for security assistance to Southeast Asia by half.) The U.S. could make it clear that certain Chinese moves will be met with a commensurate increase in military aid to the region, creating at least some room for negotiation. The main limit of this approach is that most South China Sea states have no hope of ever achieving parity with the Chinese, making them unlikely to force the issue. Some, like Vietnam, have substantial sea denial capabilities that could be used to at least temporarily restrict Chinese freedom of action. But using them would risk drawing them into a larger conflict they’d have little hope of winning, while also leading to Chinese economic retaliation.

One step the U.S. has not yet even threatened is pressuring Beijing with targeted sanctions. Multinational Chinese construction firms doing the island-building, telecommunications firms installing equipment on the atolls, and commercial airliners ferrying civilians there would be obvious targets. It’s doubtful this would deter Beijing, which sees its South China Sea islands as an integral part of its anti-access/area denial strategy and will happily tolerate sanctions if it means avoiding the humiliation of backing down. It has ways to continue on without the help of commercial partners, anyway. But for the purposes of raising the cost of expansion and doing something tangible in support of allies like the Philippines, this, too, would go further than mere FONOPs. The U.S. certainly has not been meek about targeting Chinese firms and banks with secondary sanctions to further its goals on North Korea, Iran and trade.

Ultimately, however, to restore the status quo, the U.S. would need to bring power to bear directly. This could take one of two forms. The first is to do what China has done to the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia and blockade its access to the islands. There is a strong case that this would be legal under UNCLOS. The U.S. doesn’t have the sort of coast guard or paramilitary assets in the region that China uses to harass and block outside vessels. To avoid having to police the situation by itself with warships ill-suited for the task, the U.S. would want to lean on a multinational coalition involving coast guards and civilian vessels from littoral states, plus allies like Japan, Australia and European powers – though it’s uncertain to what degree these states would be willing to provoke China in this manner. This option would have the highest risk of accident or incident that leads to unwanted escalation, and the mechanics would be exceedingly tricky. Washington would have to decide ahead of time if it’s really willing to risk war with rules of engagement that allow U.S. forces to come to the defense of a partner vessel that comes under attack.

The second option, on the extreme end of the spectrum, would be a military operation to expel the Chinese from their man-made islands and restore the status quo – or at least threaten to if China launches a new island-building project on a contested reef. This, too, would risk sparking a broader conflagration with China, but a wider war would not be automatic. For one, U.S. operations would be targeting remote outposts that were uninhabited three years ago and wouldn’t put many Chinese citizens at risk, making it conceivable that Beijing could use its media controls to contain a nationalist backlash and avoid getting drawn into an all-out war it’s not ready for. For another, China wouldn’t be able to do much to fight back even if it wanted to. China’s installation of military assets like radars and anti-air and anti-ship missiles on the islands notwithstanding, the Chinese navy would still be poorly equipped to defend them – especially those several hundred miles from the naval and air bases and missile installations on the mainland.

Most important, since the U.S. would not have much need to take and hold the islands, it could attack from a distance using standoff cruise missiles and potentially avoid direct confrontations between U.S. and Chinese warships and warplanes in China’s backyard. This means Chinese counterattacks would largely be punitive, not tactical, even if the growing range and sophistication of China’s “carrier killer” anti-ship missiles and longer-range ballistic missiles are making it harder for the U.S. to act with impunity. The U.S. wouldn’t need to open broader operations to neutralize Chinese air power or disrupt Chinese logistics networks, and Chinese counterattacks would risk escalation against the world’s most powerful military for little tactical benefit. In other words, there would be no World War II-style fights to the death over critical islands, and the operations could stay relatively contained.

Doing this wouldn’t decisively eject the Chinese from the islands or deny them future access. Nor would it prevent China from harassing Philippine fishermen or Vietnamese oil drillers. But it would attach a major cost to Chinese aggression, while demonstrating U.S. willingness and ability to play the role of arbiter in the South China Sea. Even milder U.S. threats have compelled China to back off in the past. In 2014, for example, the Chinese coast guard stopped blocking resupply boats from reaching Philippine marines marooned on Second Thomas Shoal when a U.S. surveillance plane showed up overhead. And in 2016, the Obama administration reportedly drew a red line around Scarborough Shoal, a flashpoint reef seized from the Philippines in 2012, compelling Beijing to abandon reclamation plans there.

Still, war has a way of taking on a life of its own, and it’d be naive to dismiss the risk of escalation. Regional support cannot be guaranteed. It would also give cause for Beijing to retaliate indirectly on other issues important to the United States. At minimum, it would amount to a complete breakdown of U.S.-Chinese relations at a time when there are still many issues where the U.S. wants Chinese cooperation. The U.S. would effectively be prioritizing ally reassurance in the South China Sea over trade, North Korea and so forth. Geopolitical issues of this magnitude are not settled in a vacuum. Unlike Philippine anglers blocked from Scarborough Shoal, the U.S. could reasonably decide it has bigger fish to fry.