Safe Harbor

On January 30, 2016, the United States sent a navy destroyer within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s outposts in the South China Sea. Days later, satellite images revealed that China hadinstalled surface-to-air missiles on an outpost around the same time that United States President Barack Obama met with the ten leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to discuss theSouth China Sea. The clash of interests between China and the United States in the South China Sea has become more direct, and the situation is only going to get worse.

For years, the United States has tried to foster an environment that would provide incentives for countries with sovereignty claims to South China Sea islands to reach compromises. The United States has led efforts to uphold international law and support multilateral diplomatic processes, and it has taken steps to defend its allies and partners in Southeast Asia, which are increasingly nervous about Beijing’s presence near their outposts. Many of these actions have been undertaken with the goal of encouraging countries around the region to push back against China’s assertive actions. Pursuing this strategy has limited the need for the United States to play a more direct role.

This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs.