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The South China Sea: Island Building and Evolving U.S. Policy

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This paper explores the growing involvement of the U.S. security establishment in declaratory United States South China Sea (SCS) policy, a trend that has been building over 2014–15 because of China's island building in the South China Sea. The focus of that policy is that China's newly created SCS islands will not constrain legal U.S. maritime activity on, under, and over the high seas. This was announced by the Secretary of Defense, not the Secretary of State, in Singapore in May 2015, and was a response to the disproportionately large scale of China's unannounced activity that was turning rocks and submerged shoals into credible military outposts. China was accused of undermining trust by introducing a military power dimension to the already complicated sovereignty disputes in the Spratly Islands. These accusations are correct. The reality is that China has changed the strategic balance in the Spratly Island chain by creating facilities on its new islands that will militarily overshadow the garrisons and defensive capabilities of the features occupied by Vietnam, the Philippines or Malaysia. Despite Chinese claims to the contrary, the U.S. military has no doubts that the island building is designed specifically for use as PLA operating bases. Among its more controversial recommendations, this paper puts forth a policy approach that puts more emphasis on deterrence. In this regard, Washington's call for Hanoi to stop improving the facilities it occupies in the Spratlys, probably to appear even-handed, seems strategically misguided. The goal should be to return some sort of strategic equilibrium to the Spratlys; Vietnam is the claimant best equipped to accomplish that. The other aspect of deterrence that will hopefully keep the peace is the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty because of its potential applicability if Filipino servicemen are harmed.
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Keywords: China; PLA; South China Sea; Spratly Islands; Vietnam

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: September 3, 2015

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