The sands are quickly shifting in the South China Sea. New reports suggest that China may be preparing to conduct land reclamation at Scarborough Shoal, which is seized from the Philippines in 2012. And just weeks ago, satellite images revealed that China had installed sophisticated radar on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands and deployed two batteries of surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracels. Further, following its rapid-fire island building, runway construction, and efforts to assert claims to new water and airspace, many experts agree that China could soon declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea to match the one it has already claimed in the East China Sea. This would be yet one more attempt to interfere with air traffic over the contested waters.
In many respects, however, Washington’s own efforts in the South China Sea are bearing fruit, too. The United States spotlighted China’s assertive behavior, has resumed freedom of navigation operations, and is building regional support for them. It is closer than ever with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and its ASEAN partners have begun to articulate serious, sustained concerns about freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, and the rule of law in the South China Sea, which are Washington’s primary national interests.
It is something of a puzzle that Washington has simultaneously made measurable political strides while also facing defense setbacks in the contentious waterway. But the reason is simple. Washington has focused its South China Sea strategy on the political balance in the region, aiming to maximize regional support for its interests while it augments its military posture over time. Beijing, on the other hand, has been focused on the tactical military balance and has been building islands faster than the United States can build coalitions. The result is a political balance that is generally quite favorable to Washington but a military balance that is anything but.
IN THE BALANCE