Asia Defense

A Closer Look at the Growing US-China Rivalry in the South China Sea

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Asia Defense

A Closer Look at the Growing US-China Rivalry in the South China Sea

A look at what a new report says about rising tensions between Washington and Beijing on a contentious issue.

A Closer Look at the Growing US-China Rivalry in the South China Sea
Credit: U.S. Navy Photo

A sharpening dispute between the United States and China over Freedom of Navigation (FON) in the Western Pacific was again thrust into the headlines last month following the Chinese navy’s brazen theft of an American underwater drone beyond even Beijing’s wildly imaginative Nine Dash Line, an incident I covered here at The Diplomat.

With Chinese challenges to U.S. military FON increasingly migrating to the South China Sea (SCS), last week I received a new report from the Hainan Island-based National Institute of South China Sea (NISCSS), the “Report on the Military Presence of the United States of America In the Asia-Pacific Region 2016.”

The booklet purports to offer a “systematic review of the United States’ military presence in the Asia Pacific region” and it’s largely successful in that endeavor, brimming with detailed charts, data, and infographics drawn mostly from official U.S. sources.

I was more interested in whether the report offered any new insights or perspectives on the increasingly volatile geopolitical situation in the SCS. And here too it succeeded.

The ‘Central Issue’ in the SCS

A good portion of the NISCSS report is devoted to rehashing well-tread Chinese arguments and positions on the SCS. That includes blaming the spike in regional tensions on America, which it says is driven by a desire to “maintain its long-term military hegemony” and “assuage the concerns of its allies and partners… so that its dominance in this region will not be challenged.”

However, the report goes a step further than previous commentaries by concluding the United States “will always intervene in the South China Sea” [italics added]. More surprising it claims the United States “has become the most important factor in the South China Sea issue” while the U.S.-China “geopolitical rivalry” and “competition stirred up by the United States” has become “the highlight” of the SCS disputes and “the central South China Sea issue.” [italics added]

The Evolution of U.S. Policy in the SCS

The report outlines the evolution of America’s SCS policy across several phases. The first phase was one of “neutrality” before 1995, the year China assumed control over Mischief Reef, a low tide elevation still claimed by—and located within the Exclusive Economic Zone of—the Philippines.

At that point, U.S. policy shifted to one of “limited intervention” when the State Department enunciated U.S. interests in the SCS in 1995, including FON. In 1996, after China encompassed the Paracel Islands in straight baselines, a violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the State Department issued another report in opposition, Straight Baseline Claim: China, Limits in the Seas. In the years to follow, America purportedly “stepped up intervention” by joining the ASEAN Regional forum and “carrying out joint military exercises with some claimants in disputed waters.”

Finally, the report identifies the year 2010 as a “turning point,” after which the United States’ SCS policy became “tougher.” That’s the year then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly declared FON in the SCS was in the U.S. “national interest,” followed in 2011 by the unveiling of the Obama administration’s “Pivot” or “Rebalance” to Asia policy. NISCSS President Dr. Wu Shicun has separately identified these events as representative of a shift from “limited engagement” to “active engagement.”

FONOPS and Close-In Surveillance                             

The report blames American surveillance activities near China for having “threatened China’s national security, damaged China’s relevant maritime rights and interests and undermined Sino-U.S. strategic mutual trust,” warning they are “very likely to lead to accidental collisions at sea or in the air.”

More noteworthy, it claims U.S. “close reconnaissance sorties expanded from 260 in 2009 to 1,200 in 2014.” China, it says, “has become the No. 1 targeted country of U.S. close reconnaissance in terms of frequency, scope and means, and the number of such reconnaissance activities is increasing gradually with each passing year.”

With regard to U.S. FONOPS, four of which were launched by the Obama administration over the past 18 months to challenge excessive Chinese maritime claims in the SCS, the report argues the program was designed in the late 1970s “to resist the new law of the sea at a time when the [UNCLOS negotiations were] about to conclude.” And it warns that future FONOPS “would lead to militarization in the [SCS] and undermine regional peace and stability.”

It further criticizes Washington for the conduct of its FONOPS, which “have been publicized in high profile and with a lot of media hype, a phenomenon that has never been seen before in any waters involving any country” and is “very different from usual U.S. practice of implementing the FON program quietly.” “It is evident,” the section concludes, “that the purpose was to ‘hype up’ the South China Sea issue.”

Finally, the report frequently refers to Chinese forces “expelling” the U.S. military assets conducting FONOPS in the SCS. The USS William Lawrence was “expelled” from the Nansha Islands in May 2016 by “the relevant department of the Chinese side.” In January 2016, “China’s force on [Triton Island in the Paracels] gave warnings and expelled [the USS Curtis Wilbur] from the waters.” When two U.S. B-52 bombers “trespassed in the airspace near China’s Nansha Islands and Reefs without authorization,” the “Chinese army maintained a close surveillance on the two bombers, gave warnings, and expelled them.”


In the past, China has sought to downplay and delegitimize the U.S. role in the SCS, deeming it a marginal, external player in a web of bilateral territorial disputes best resolved by Beijing and its neighbors. U.S. officials have similarly sought to downplay America’s role in the SCS and its potential as a friction point in bilateral relations.

In June 2015, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel argued the SCS is “not fundamentally an issue between the U.S. and China,” a claim I challenged here in The Diplomat. It’s notable the NISCSS report not only acknowledges the severity of U.S.-China differences in the SCS, it claims they have become the “central issue,” “highlight,” and “most important factor” there.

Without official data it’s impossible to verify—or rebut—the report’s claim that U.S. “close reconnaissance sorties expanded from nearly six-fold from 2009 to 2014. Even if the figures—apparently drawn from a 2015 presentation to a foreign affairs forum in Beijing by former deputy commander of the PLA Air Force Chen Xiaogong—are inflated it’s almost certainly true such operations have markedly increased in recent years. With China’s military budget roughly doubling over that period its behavior in the South and East China Sea growing more combative, it’s not hard to see why. A better question is whether those activities have been conducted in accordance with international law and UNCLOS, which China has signed and ratified. They have.

The report is correct to note U.S. FONPOS in the SCS have received an unusual amount of media attention and “hype.” That’s partly a product of the Obama administration’s muddled messaging and decision to conduct the least potent forms of FONOPS in the SCS, a peculiar choice which generated a spirited debate in the U.S. strategic and defense community. However, the “hype” is also the product of China’s behavior—other countries don’t “shadow” and try to “expel” U.S. vessels during FONPOS—and a steady flow of threatening and inflammatory rhetoric emanating from Chinese nationalists on the issue.

Finally, the report’s effort to blame the rise in regional tensions on a provocative new American posture toward the SCS simply doesn’t withstand analytical scrutiny.

Perhaps the key feature of America’s SCS policy has been its remarkable consistency. Many in Beijing view Secretary Clinton’s 2010 remarks on FON in the SCS being in America’s national interest as a seminal and ominous turning point in U.S. policy. In doing so they fail to recognize Clinton was merely restating a policy that’s remained virtually unchanged since it was articulated by the State Department in 1995:

No position on the legal merits of the competing claims to sovereignty over the various islands, reefs, atolls, and cays

An abiding interest in the maintenance of peace and stability

Serious concern [toward] any maritime claim or restriction on maritime activity in the SCS that was not consistent with international law, including UNCLOS

Most important, the 1995 policy affirmed: “Maintaining freedom of navigation is a fundamental interest of the United States. Unhindered navigation by all ships and aircraft in the South China Sea is essential for the peace and prosperity of the entire Asia-Pacific region, including the United States.”

In other words, FON in the SCS has been a “fundamental” and “essential” publicly-articulated U.S. national security interest for over two decades. What’s changed isn’t U.S. policy, but China’s behavior. FONOPS are designed to challenge illegal or excessive maritime claims. They began in the SCS not because U.S. policy changed, but because China constructed artificial islands there and attempted to restrict FON around those islands in ways inconsistent with UNCLOS and customary international law.

Recognizing you have a problem, they say, is the first step toward resolution. The NISCSS report deserves credit for publicly acknowledging the seriousness of the U.S.-China FON dispute in the SCS. Correctly diagnosing the problem and finding a solution is likely to prove a far greater challenge.