Safe Harbor

How to End the South China Sea Crisis

A ship (top) of Chinese Coast Guard is seen near a ship of Vietnam Marine Guard in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) off shore of Vietnam May 14, 2014. Nguyen Minh / Reuters

On January 30, 2016, the United States sent a navy destroyer within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s outposts in the South China Sea. Days later, satellite images revealed that China had installed surface-to-air missiles on an outpost around the same time that United States President Barack Obama met with the ten leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to discuss the South China Sea. The clash of interests between China and the United States in the South China Sea has become more direct, and the situation is only going to get worse.

For years, the United States has tried to foster an environment that would provide incentives for countries with sovereignty claims to South China Sea islands to reach compromises. The United States has led efforts to uphold international law and support multilateral diplomatic processes, and it has taken steps to defend its allies and partners in Southeast Asia, which are increasingly nervous about Beijing’s presence near their outposts. Many of these actions have been undertaken with the goal of encouraging countries around the region to push back against China’s assertive actions. Pursuing this strategy has limited the need for the United States to play a more direct role.

But it is time to accept that this approach alone is insufficient and won’t lead to a sustainable solution. Beijing has made it clear that this constellation of factors will not deter it from asserting its perceived rights in the South China Sea. If the United States wants to change China’s political calculus in the South China Sea, it must cut to the chase and pursue a bilateral agreement with Beijing to stabilize the security situation—only that can freeze the disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea and prevent them from spiraling.


Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam all share competing territorial and maritime claims in the sea, through which $5.3 trillion of trade passes annually and under which

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