Exposing China’s Actions in the South China Sea

Expert Guest, Ely Ratner, explains how the US should approach China's expansion into the South China Sea

China is advancing toward its goal of establishing administrative control over much of the South China Sea.To prevent these outcomes, it is vital for the United States to implement a comprehensive set of policies that include military, economic, and diplomatic elements.

As part of a broader strategy for the South China Sea, the U.S. government should initiate information operations that hinder China’s ability to consolidate its control of the waterway and the airspace. Specifically, the U.S. Congress should require the U.S. State Department to provide regular public reports on China’s military and coercive activities in the South China Sea. Greater transparency would help to counter China’s deceptive propaganda about its own behavior, elevate the issue in regional and international forums, and compel regional governments to respond more vigorously to China’s actions.

The dearth of public information about China’s activities in the South China Sea has hampered regional coordination and diminished incentives for regional governments to respond to China’s actions. There have been notable instances over the last decade when disclosure of China’s actions led to public outcry in regional countries, which in turn compelled governments to respond independently, with one another, and with the United States.

Recommendations

  • In the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, the U.S. Congress should require the State Department to release a quarterly report on China’s military and coercive activities in the South China Sea.
  • The office of the undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs at the State Department should be responsible for publishing the report
  • With the authority vested in EO 13526, the secretary of defense should determine that the public interest in selective declassification of China’s activities in the South China Sea outweighs the potential damage from disclosure. The secretary should then mandate the directors of NGA and DIA to provide the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) at the State Department with declassified aircraft-generated imagery and supporting analysis describing Chinese activities of concern. INR should then work with the State Department’s Bureau of Public Affairs to prepare the report.
  • State Department officials in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs should preview the report to relevant embassies in Washington, DC, the day before its public release. Similarly, U.S. embassies should be charged with previewing the report to official counterparts in Asia.

This proposal carries potential risks, but none so significant to outweigh the benefits. China would surely protest, and possibly increase harassment of U.S. surveillance aircraft. It is unlikely, however, that China would respond by severely aggravating U.S. interests in critical policy areas, such as North Korea, where China’s actions are dictated by other vital interests. Separately, greater public disclosure of China’s actions could increase tensions between China and regional countries, but the probability of major conflict remains low.

The lack of resistance has emboldened leaders in Beijing . . . A concerted pushback could make a difference.

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