With the U.S. government and the world understandably focused on North Korea and escalating tensions in northeast Asia, China this summer has made substantial progress in further establishing de facto control over most of the South China Sea. Indeed, aside from Secretary Defense Mattis’ strongly-worded speech in June at the annual Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, and an uptick in U.S. Navy freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, the administration seems uninterested in reinforcing—let alone more forcefully emphasizing—international law and the longstanding U.S. position that all claimants must take concrete steps in accordance with said law to resolve the disputes peacefully. As Bonnie Glaser from the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted this past July at CSIS’s seventh annual South China Sea conference, the United States seemed surprised and ill-prepared for the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling, and has yet to devise a comprehensive South China Sea policy or strategy. Freedom-of-navigation operations is simply a policy tool, not a policy in itself.
This isn’t lost on Beijing or the ten Association for Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) states. As the diplomatic winds blow harder in China’s favor, Beijing’s next move could very well be a security power play, like declaring maritime base points and strait baselines from the islands and shoals it has occupied and militarized. Or perhaps it could establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the same area. Furthermore, U.S.-China relations are worsening over North Korea and trade, and, following the Nineteenth Party Congress in late October, Chinese president Xi Jinping may see, from a position of greater domestic strength, both an opportunity and a need to make that very type of play.