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How far should U.S. go in South China Sea territory dispute?

President Obama and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter have urged China to curb activities in the disputed South China Sea territory. Vietnam and other allies have also been advised to ease off. Should the U.S. do more to tamp down growing tensions? William Brangham talks to Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute and Kenneth G. Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution.

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    Joining us now to discuss the escalating tensions on the South China Sea and what role the U.S. should play is Kenneth Lieberthal. He was a senior director for Asia on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. And Michael Auslin, a resident scholar of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, he also writes a column for The Wall Street Journal.

    Gentlemen, thank you for being here.

    Kenneth Lieberthal, I would like to start with you first.

    How significant are China's actions right now? This is obviously more than just building a few acres of sand in the middle of the sea.

  • KENNETH LIEBERTHAL, Brookings Institution:

    It is, but it's something less than moving populations off of land.

    It's not the occupation of the Sudetenland, nothing like that. It's building some platforms in the South China Sea I think in part to reinforce China's claims to disputed territory, but also potentially for military use in the future.

    I think that the real danger will be if they put a lot on these islands that give them a — especially an air force capability that may lead them to declare what's called an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea. That would be extremely provocative. So, these islands in themselves are of little significance, but they have the potential to become platforms for something more worrisome.


    Michael Auslin, what is your sense. What does China want here?

  • MICHAEL AUSLIN, American Enterprise Institute:

    Well, I think Ken is right that what is China's trying to do is give it the basis to extend its territorial claims and say that this is really territory that comes with 12-mile territorial limits of the oceans, the potential of the skies as well, and making it clear that China is the most invested land power, so to speak, in the South China Sea.

    What Ken said about the militarization of the islands, unfortunately, seems already to be happening. We saw airstrips on these islands. There's been reports of anti-artillery or anti-aircraft weaponry there. The problem is not that they're simply building them and they're building them for research purposes, as they said, but that from the get-go they're designed for power projection purposes that will allow China to extend throughout this region.


    Kenneth Lieberthal, Secretary Carter argued that China is breaking the rules. China says, we're just doing what other nations in the region have done and this land is really our land to do with what we please.

    What are the rules that govern here?


    It's a very good question.

    The rules are not very clear, frankly. China is correct in saying that it is building on features that others have built on similar features, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines in the past. And so China in a sense is playing catch-up, is playing catch-up in a major way and exceeding what others have done.

    So, what Secretary Carter is really calling for is a halt to all of this, everyone take a deep breath and see whether we can negotiate some modus vivendi that will avoid conflict, perhaps eventually lead to joint development of resources in the region and keep this from becoming something that really divides the region in a serious fashion.


    Michael, Senator McCain says that the U.S. has got to do more to contain China's actions. Do you agree with that? Should we be doing more? And, practically speaking, what should we be doing?


    Well, I think we should have done more earlier on.

    The problem is that we have put ourselves into a situation where we're playing catch-up. This has been slow-rolling for years. China has been slowly taking pieces of territory in the South China Sea. It started in the 1990s. It did it a few years ago. Our allies and partners have been warning us about it and now we're suddenly waking up to the fact.

    And I think that's actually the biggest problem is that both sides are backing themselves into corners. Somebody is going to have to blink. I think the U.S. can do more by supporting its allies. It can do more with being present. It has talked about — and this is a good thing — to give aid to our Southeast Asian nations who would like to be partners, but we should have done that a long time ago.

    I think the trend line was very clear. We ignored it. We hoped it wouldn't develop in this way. And now we're making up lost ground, while the Chinese are building ground.


    Kenneth, what is your take on that? What do you think we ought to be doing?


    These features that China is doing, dredging, then building some above-surface features on are in fact militarily extremely vulnerable, almost impossible to defend if the Chinese ever wanted to do anything offensive from them.

    I think we need to be very careful to focus on the things that are real red lines for us. This concerns freedom of navigation in the area. You know, it's keeping within the boundaries of what we think are really critical for our interests. And we should extend assistance to our friends and allies there to improve their maritime awareness, so they know what's going on out there.

    And we should encourage negotiations. But that's about as far as we should go. I disagree that we're playing catch-up and we have let this fester without paying any attention to it.


    Michael, the world leaders, Chinese leaders, American leaders have both say we don't want this to devolve into a conflict.

    But in a fragile area, where tensions are high, and one pilot is talking to one captain, sometimes diplomacy gets thrown out the window. Do you worry that there might be a situation, that this could flare up into something bigger?


    No, that's the biggest danger we face is an accident or a miscalculation.

    Look, we have already had a collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. surveillance plane back in 2001. The Chinese pilot died and the Americans crash-landed. Now, with the stakes, I would argue, being higher, the fact of hotheaded pilots in the air or captains on the sea could make it very difficult, I think, potentially to control something that starts to spiral out of control.

    Look, this is not the Soviet Union and the United States in the Cold War, where there were lots of mechanisms for crisis resolution. We don't have the same sets of working relations with the Chinese. And while I'm sure that no one in Beijing wants to see a war, the fact is, when things are happening very quickly on the ground, it may be hard to control.

    Just very quickly to Ken's point about what we should be doing, I think the issue is that this is a question of, is the balance of power in the sea changing? It's not just that others have claims as well, but that when China brings its power to bear, when it changes the facts on the ground or the facts in the sea, so to speak, it has long-lasting effects.

    And Ken is right. We don't take sides on territorial issues, but we do care about the balance of power. And that's where I think our friends and our allies would say, we have been dilatory, we have not paid as much attention, and we haven't acted in ways early that could have sent very strong signals about how we wanted this to proceed peacefully.

    Now we have the president of the United States calling Chinese actions aggressive. And so we have obviously reached a point that is not where we were a year or two years ago.


    OK, Michael Auslin, Kenneth Lieberthal, thank you very much for joining us.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.


    In an unrelated development tonight, a passenger ship carrying 444 people sank in the Yangtze River in Southern China. At least seven people have been rescued so far. According to the official Chinese news agency, rescue operations are still continuing.

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