On Aug. 26, the United State’s Departments of State and Commerce announced a plethora of sanctions that are set to be enacted against leaders of construction companies — owned by the Communist Party of China (CPC) — which officials deemed as participating in malign state projects in the South China Sea. The relevant measures include export restrictions, withholding visas and decreased access to U.S.-created technology without permits. These policies serve as an important step toward curtailing Beijing’s long-running problematic behavior.

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the commencement of the “Belt and Road Initiative,” a comprehensive foreign policy and economic strategy dedicated to augmenting Beijing’s soft and hard power around the globe. Since then, the CPC has taken on various projects to achieve this goal, with one notable example being the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. Chinese officials say they have rightful control over nearly all of these international waterways, yet such ambitious claims conflict with the policies of other states in the region who dispute the legitimacy of China maintaining full control of the sea and who may pass through it. The South China Sea serves as one of the most important maritime trade routes in the world — trillions of dollars worth of shipping pass through these waters each year. Having control over the sea does not merely grant symbolic power; it carries immense global economic consequences.

These islands often serve as fortified military installations, further adding to the impact of Beijing’s marine aggression. With missile systems, landing strips for fighter jets and other advanced equipment, these naval forts represent China’s ambitions to be a hegemony in Asia and beyond. They have emboldened Beijing to become aggressive to military craft that simply enters these international waters, including U.S. reconnaissance flights far from China’s coastline. These actions are not only threats to international law and established norms, but also toward the U.S. and the Southeast Asian nations whose coastlines brush against China’s “nine-dash line” that outlines the waters it claims on regional maps. 

U.S. military leaders have spoken strongly against these developments and the clear threat to American interests that they represent. In May 2018, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, testified before Congress and said “short of war with the United States,” China could achieve full control of the South China Sea “in all scenarios.” If China achieves such a stranglehold on these strategically vital waterways, it could spell disaster for the military and economic interests of the U.S. and its allies, in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

Without taking military action, the sanctions announced this week are important and potentially impactful steps toward deterring Chinese naval aggression. Closely targeted against the leadership of about 25 state-owned construction firms, these restrictions can help to handicap any further development of existing or planned military islands by preventing them from attaining American-made supplies and technology for hostile Chinese purposes. The China Communications Construction Company and other CPC-funded companies could likely find other sources for materials and funding. Yet, the export and visa restrictions by the State and Commerce departments will certainly make Beijing’s work more difficult. These provisions will also assure that the U.S. and American companies do not inadvertently fund or support efforts to shift control of one of the world’s most important shipping passages toward a foreign adversary.

In 2015, Xi promised former President Barack Obama, and the world, that his country would not militarize the Spratly Islands, where the Chinese military had already begun “relevant construction” in areas where, in Xi’s words, China had maintained legitimate sovereignty “since ancient times.” Five years later, China added the Spratlys to their network of menacing naval installations throughout the South China Sea. Years of passivity in response to Beijing’s military actions have led Xi and his CPC to become further emboldened to expand their illegitimate grip on the international waterways and achieve the goals of their Belt and Road Initiative by sea. With strong sanctions on the way, the U.S. has indicated that while not showing aggression toward China, we are ready to play hardball to justifiably protect our interests and global free trade from Beijing’s unlawful attacks.

Noah Ente can be reached at noahente@umich.edu.

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