Kalia V. Peters / U.S. Navy via REUTERS The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga sail in formation with 16 other ships during Keen Sword in the Philippine Sea, November 2018.

How the U.S. Can Step Up in the South China Sea

The Right Way to Push Back Against Beijing

Over the course of his two years in office, U.S. President Donald Trump has been vocal in his disdain for most forms of multilateralism. Yet when it comes to two pressing maritime issues in East Asia, his administration sees the value of friends. First is the problem of stopping illegal transfers of fuel to North Korean tankers in the East China Sea, a tactic that Pyongyang uses to skirt U.S. and UN sanctions. To crack down on the smuggling, the United States and Japan have brought together a coalition of states to identify and report vessels engaged in these illicit ship-to-ship transfers.

Then there is the South China Sea, where Beijing continues its military buildup and has doubled down on maritime claims that fly in the face of international law. Navies from within and outside the region have responded to China’s aggressive posturing by undertaking more operations, including exercises, intelligence gathering, and passages through contested waters, aimed at maintaining freedom of navigation in the air and at sea, a development U.S. officials have lauded.

Unfortunately, U.S. leadership has been evident on only one of these maritime issues. Washington has been the driving force behind the multilateral effort to crack down on North Korean smuggling. But it has been much less effective in coordinating with like-minded states to defend freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Pushing back against Chinese revisionism will require an international effort that Washington is in a prime position to shape. In devising how best to do so, Washington could take a page from its own playbook in the East China Sea.

Pushing back against Chinese revisionism will require an international effort that Washington is in a prime position to shape.

A SUCCESSFUL COALITION

In October 2017, the United States began surveillance flights over the East China Sea to monitor and disrupt the activities of ships suspected of violating sanctions on North Korea. At the start of 2018, the Trump administration decided to expand that effort by

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