Beijing’s South China Sea Strategy Is Succeeding—Here’s Why

Though unintentionally, North Korea is greatly aiding China’s drive to dominate the South China Sea.

In July 2016, conflict between China and the United States seemed possible. China had many of the smaller Asian nations worried by its aggressive behavior to control the South China Sea. A year later, without having to wage a war, China has won de facto control over the South China Sea.

Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, recently stated that the fight for the South China Sea is effectively “now game over.”

This highlights three trends we can see:

  1. America’s influence is rapidly fading.
  2. China’s power is rapidly rising.
  3. Smaller Asian nations are realigning themselves accordingly.

This conflict centers on China building and militarizing islands in the South China Sea. Last July, the International Court of Justice, located in The Hague, Netherlands, passed a ruling that stated China’s claims and activities were illegitimate and illegal. This should have been a blow to China and a win for the Philippines and other claimants in the area. The ruling needed the backing of a more powerful nation’s military to gain legitimacy. This would have been given if the U.S. had conducted a freedom of navigation operation. Instead, then-President Barack Obama’s administration simply conducted an innocent passage exercise, which doesn’t carry the same message.

Because of the lack of support from the U.S., the Philippines and others in the area decided not to acknowledge their victory from The Hague.

In May of this year, President Donald Trump’s administration did conduct a freedom of navigation exercise. This effort has been deemed too little, too late. North Korea poses a more volatile, and therefore greater, threat than China’s actions in the area. The U.S. needs China on its side, putting pressure on North Korea.

The belligerent actions of North Korea have figuratively tied the United States’ hands. The South China Sea belongs to China.