• Panelists at WEST 2020 examine how to stand up to China's South China Sea aggression. Photo by Michael Carpenter
     Panelists at WEST 2020 examine how to stand up to China's South China Sea aggression. Photo by Michael Carpenter

Holding Back China’s Conquest of the South China Sea

March 3, 2020
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Measured but firm responses may stop aggression and prevent war.

Carefully crafted actions on the part of nations respecting international law may be the solution for countering China’s maritime territory grab in the South China Sea. These actions could prevent the Middle Kingdom from bullying its way into areas it claims unilaterally, or they might be the key to preventing the region from erupting into armed conflict.

These issues were the focus of discussion in a Tuesday panel at WEST 2020, the conference and exposition in San Diego March 2-3 co-sponsored by AFCEA International and USNI. A collection of warfighters and academics weighed the consequences of potential actions as well as inaction.

Their consensus was that steps needed to be taken sooner rather than later. “If we don’t take action to stop China now, we will be living in China’s world,” said panel moderator Hunter Stires of the U.S. Naval War College. Lt. Cdr. Steven Wills, USN (Ret.), CNA, pointed out, “The South China Sea is a longtime source of conflict. The prize is control of the international maritime system.”

Some panelists called China’s de facto maritime annexation an insurgency, and they called for counter-insurgency activities. One question raised was whether the United States and the local countries have the will to undertake a counterinsurgency action in the South China Sea.

Capt. Daniel Straub, USN, Strategy, Policy & Plans-Asia, The Joint Staff (J-5), noted that the United States has been taking physical steps to reject Chinese territorial claims. “We have been conducting freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea,” he said. “I think our strategy in the South China Sea is starting to work. China has changed its behavior by not militarizing as it has done in the past.”

Capt. Joshua Taylor, USN, International Plans and Policy (N-51), U.S. Pacific Fleet, agreed. “Periodic U.S. presence has prevented the Chinese from taking more overt military actions,” he pointed out.

Part of the effort must include rallying the people who could be most affected by China’s aggression. “The target audience for our actions [in the South China Sea] is the local populace,” said Bryan Clark, The Hudson Institute. Capt. Straub warned, however, that China may be ahead in the war of ideas. “We’re not good at getting our message out,” he charged. “The Chinese are very good at getting their message out.”

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