The South China Sea is fast becoming the world’s most important waterway. As the main corridor between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the sea carries one-third of global maritime trade, worth over $5 trillion, each year, $1.2 trillion of it going to or from the United States. The sea’s large oil and gas reserves and its vast fishing grounds, which produce 12 percent of the world’s annual catch, provide energy and food for Southeast Asia’s 620 million people.
But all is not well in the area. Six governments—in Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam—have overlapping claims to hundreds of rocks and reefs that scatter the sea. Sovereignty over these territories not only serves as a source of national pride; it also confers hugely valuable rights to drill for oil, catch fish, and sail warships in the surrounding waters. For decades, therefore, these countries have contested one another’s claims, occasionally even resorting to violence. No single government has managed to dominate the area, and the United States has opted to remain neutral on the sovereignty disputes. In recent years, however, China has begun to assert its claims more vigorously and is now poised to seize control of the sea. Should it succeed, it would deal a devastating blow to the United States’ influence in the region, tilting the balance of power across Asia in China’s favor.
In early 2014, China’s efforts to assert authority over the South China Sea went from a trot to a gallop.
Time is running out to stop China’s advance. With current U.S. policy faltering, the Trump administration needs to take a firmer line. It should supplement diplomacy with deterrence by warning China that if the aggression continues, the United States will abandon its neutrality and help countries in the region defend their claims. Washington should make clear that it can live with an uneasy stalemate in Asia—but not with Chinese hegemony.
ON THE MARCH
China has asserted “