US Weighing 'Actions Short of War' to Punish China for Building Man-made Islands in South China Sea

By | Feb 13, 2017 10:26 PM EST

Chinese radars on Cuarteron Reef (top) and Subi Reef (bottom).(Photo : CSIS/Philippine Navy)

The Trump administration is weighing actions short of war to punish China for building manmade islands in the South China Sea, and seizing islands rightfully belonging to other countries.

During his confirmation hearings on Jan. 11, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, "We're going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed."

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That statement has been taken to mean a direct threat of war against China by implementing a naval blockade. Some American foreign policy experts, however, contend there are other ways of realizing Tillerson's goal without resorting to force of arms.

Among the full spectrum of actions short of war available to American policy makers are targeted economic sanctions and targeted initiatives that directly or indirectly prevent China from building more man-made islands and militarizing those islands.

To be truly effective, targeted sanctions must be aimed at individuals and companies that support, facilitate, or participate in China's illegal island-building operations in the South China Sea. A bill introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio in December 2016 was the first to take this course of action.

Rubio's bill seeks to impose asset freezes and travel bans on people and entities that "contribute to construction or development projects" in the contested areas and those that "threaten the peace, security or stability" of the South China Sea or East China Sea.

It also prohibits actions that may imply American recognition of Chinese sovereignty over the contested areas in these seas, and restricts foreign assistance to countries that recognize China's sovereignty.

These primary sanctions might be augmented by sanctions against companies or individuals that do business with the offenders. Targeted sanctions are seen as an important tool that might indirectly cause changes in China's unacceptable behavior.

A more controversial and novel approach to changing China's behavior will be for the U.S. to employ what's being called "anti-China cabbage tactics."

China's successful bid to build or occupy islands in the South China Sea saw it use "cabbage tactics." This means wrapping contested islands in multiple layers of Chinese military and paramilitary power.

Washington's proposed anti-China cabbage tactics will surround the targeted islands with private civilian boats in an inner circle, followed by law enforcement vessels in the outer circle. All these assets will be protected by U.S. Navy warships nearby.

Unmanned aerial drones and unmanned underwater vehicles launched from civilian and United States Coast Guard ships will be used to seal off the entry to China's airstrips and harbors on China's illegal man-made islands.

American experts claim these actions are fully consistent with international law. They claim that if China doesn't recognize another country's rights to freedom of the seas, that country has the right to restrict China's freedom in return.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration on July 12, 2016 ruled as illegitimate China's "nine-dash line" claims in the South China Sea; its occupation of Mischief Reef owned by the Philippines; its denial of access to Scarborough Shoal also owned by the Philippines; its island building in the Spratlys claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, and its harassment of Filipinos in the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

International law allows countries to conduct countermeasures against wrongful acts such as those committed by China. Experts contend that challenging China's rights to access its artificial islands is consistent with international law.

It's all a matter of using China's tactics against it. And China knows it can't win a war against the United States.

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