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How to Ensure Security in South China Sea

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Admiral Dong Jun, at a major defense conference in Singapore. It will be the first meeting between the two defense leaders following a phone call in April.


It comes as the US and China have gradually worked to warm relations, which had been largely frozen since a controversial visit by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2022 resulted in China temporarily stopping most military-to-military communications.


The South China Sea is a vital waterway through which approximately one-third of global trade passes. It is rich in natural resources and is home to contested islands, reefs, and shoals.


China has been assertively advancing its territorial claims in the region, including reclaiming land, militarizing islands, and using legal arguments to strengthen its position. The US has a strong interest in maintaining free and open access to the South China Sea. It upholds the global norm of freedom of navigation and aims to prevent China from asserting control over this critical waterway.


The risk of a military clash between the US and China has increased due to ongoing trade frictions and recriminations related to the COVID-19 pandemic. China’s actions - such as creating new municipal districts governing disputed islands - underscore its determination to strengthen its claims. The US has defense treaty obligations with some claimants in the region, including the Philippines. Any escalation could draw the US into a conflict.


The US must balance deterrence against China, reassurance to allies, and diplomatic engagement. Joint military exercises, such as the Balikatan exercise, showcase cooperation and commitment to regional defense. The release of Bilateral Defense Guidelines emphasizes joint efforts to defend the South China Sea.


Responding to China’s actions in the “gray zone” (coercive actions below the threshold of armed conflict) is difficult due to blurred lines between peace and conflict. Diplomatic protests and statements have been the primary response so far, but future provocations may require more robust action. The US must prevent China from dominating the region while avoiding dangerous confrontations.


Both nations must find ways to manage tensions while safeguarding their interests and regional security. Austin’s upcoming meeting with Jun provides an opportunity for dialogue and collaboration, even amid recent military drills and geopolitical complexities.


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