Red Lines and Red Carpets in the South China Sea

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Few security challenges are as vexing as the South China Sea. With multiple claimants and murky claims, the contours of the conflict can be difficult to grasp. In recent years, China has used ambiguity, asymmetry, and incrementalism to assert control over parts of the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the Obama administration attempted to draw red lines against “reclamation, construction, and militarization.” Yet, Beijing nevertheless reclaimed, constructed, and militarized all seven of the features it controls in the Spratly Islands.

Incoming Trump administration officials have indicated that they will adopt a more forceful approach to Chinese activities in the South China Sea. As the administration develops this new strategy, U.S. leaders must decide which Chinese actions they can deter at an acceptable level of risk. In so doing, they should evaluate eight potential South China Sea crisis scenarios:

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