The People’s Republic of China (PRC) recently suffered a serious embarrassment in front of an international arbitral tribunal convened under authority of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Permanent Court of Arbitration dismissed decades-old PRC claims to sovereignty over a large swath of the South China Sea. The PRC, however, rejected the tribunal’s decision and appears ready to carry out some sort of escalation to demonstrate that it maintains sovereignty.
That purported sovereignty threatens a core interest of the United States: freedom of navigation on the high seas. The United States needs to develop a flexible, scalable range of options at the tactical level to respond effectively should the PRC escalate actions to reinforce its claims. Conveniently, UNCLOS provides such a range of options that, while only part of a broader solution that should include theater- and political-level escalatory options, could provide U.S. commanders and policymakers a way to respond to any further PRC aggression in a quick, forceful, and unified manner.
The South China Sea Issue