Protesting Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, Manila, Philippines, July 2021
Eloisa Lopez / Reuters

The United States faces a conundrum in the South China Sea: China is radically changing the status quo in the sea in its favor. But since 2016, the Southeast Asian states whose legal rights are being trampled have been reluctant to push back firmly against Beijing.

The United States and like-minded countries cannot alter China’s behavior at sea without the active participation of these regional claimants. Yet in much of Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, elites and the broader public judge Washington’s commitment to the region based in part on whether it defends their maritime rights.

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