The US is developing new military tactics to deter China's slow but steady territorial advances in the South China Sea, including more aggressive use of surveillance aircraft and naval operations near contested areas.
The rethink comes in the wake of the series of low-level incursions China has used to shift the status quo in one of the vital waterways of the global economy.
The challenge for the US military is to find tactics to deter these small-scale Chinese moves without escalating particular disputes into a broader military conflict. Every year, $5,300bn of goods cross the South China Sea by ship.
"Our efforts to deter China [in the South China Sea] have clearly not worked," said a senior US official.
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The growing tensions in the South China Sea, which include disputes between China and Vietnam and the Philippines, cast a shadow over the annual meeting between senior US and Chinese officials, known as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which started in Beijing on Wednesday.
The US delegation, led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, face the delicate task of trying to shore up an increasingly fragile relationship with Beijing, while laying out American concerns about Chinese maritime expansionism and cyber theft. For their part, the Chinese are irked by US moves to prosecute Chinese military officials over alleged cyber-hacking and by American alliances in Asia which Beijing views as a form of containment.
One element of the emerging US strategy was evident in March when the US flew P-8A surveillance planes over the Second Thomas Shoal, an uninhabited atoll in the South China Sea. Chinese ships there were trying to prevent the Philippines from supplying marines who were trying to get essential supplies to a ship that in 1999 was deliberately run aground on a land-feature claimed by both countries. The US planes flew at low altitude to make sure they were visible to the Chinese.
"This is a new dynamic," said a former Pentagon official familiar with the operation. "The message is, 'we know what you are doing, your actions will have consequences and that we have the capacity and the will and we are here'."