For the last decade, the China-U.S. struggle in the South China Sea (SCS) has been a case of “cold confrontation.” The United States, viewing China as a “revisionist state” and “strategic adversary,” seeks to not only strengthen its own military operations in the SCS, but also unite its global allies — such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the United Kingdom — to compete against China. This has resulted in a higher frequency of — and closer physical contact during — China-U.S. air and sea encounters. Entrenched divergence between the two sides’ desires and interests has become more and more dire as both their bilateral relationship and the regional security situation continue to evolve. Under these circumstances, it’s crucial to explore how to prevent tense situations from escalating to direct conflicts.
China and the United States’ Vital Interests in the SCS
Discussions around the divergences in, or conflicts of, core national interests in the SCS between China and the United States have brought about fierce debate. Actually, neither China nor the United States has publicly described their respective stakes in the SCS using the term “core interests.” Nevertheless, it is obvious that there are vital interests in the SCS for both countries. The friction between the two countries is essentially a struggle for comparative advantage and dominance in the regional order.
Ever since Washington announced some interests in the South China Sea for the first time in 1995, the United States’ SCS interests have gradually become clearer, particularly under the Obama and Trump administrations. U.S. officials have publicly stated that Washington has “vital interests” and “top national interests” in the SCS. These U.S. interests have three dimensions. The first is the fundamental interest in freedom of navigation, including unrestricted access to the SCS for U.S. military vessels and aircraft. The second is maintaining the overwhelming superiority of U.S. military power and the credible capability of strategic deterrence through sea control and power projection to prevent military conflict and political coercion. The third dimension is building a “rules-based regional order” dominated by the United States.
On the other hand, China’s interests in the SCS can be divided into four levels. On the first level, the territorial sovereignty of the SCS islands and the derived territorial seas, exclusive economic zones, as well as other rights formed in the course of history, are China’s fundamental interests in the SCS. Second, given the South China Sea’s role as a natural “maritime moat,” both the islands and the water-air space play a vital role in China’s national security strategy. Third, the SCS is crucially relevant to China’s domestic economic growth, especially since China is world’s largest commodity exporter and oil importer, of which more than 60 percent and 80 percent, respectively, are transported through the SCS. For the fourth level, it is also in China’s interests to formulate rules to constrain the behaviors of all parties, and establish a sustainable and stable development environment for the surrounding areas.
As we can see, the fundamental conflict in the SCS lies in the inconsistent American pursuit to dominate regional order and the growing strength of China. Specifically, the United States intends to maintain its overwhelming advantage as a leading power in the SCS so as to serve as a “defender” of the existing order, while in China’s view, the underlying goal is to “contain” the expansion of Chinese influence. China’s land reclamation, to a large extent, aims to deter the possibility of any new illegal island occupation and violation of China’s claimed maritime rights; from the perspective of America, meanwhile, China is engaging in “militarization” and intends to define a sphere of influence and ultimately control the SCS. In terms of rules, China’s preference to manage the maritime situation through Code of Conduct (COC) consultations is regarded as establishing “distinctive rules” excluding the United States. The American understanding and practice of freedom of navigation as an international rule are also different from those of China.
These irreconcilable contradictions result not only from mutual distrust and strategic suspicion, but also conflicts of vital interests. For example, America considers its FONOPs and front-line deployment as crucial interests, but that is inevitably viewed as a great challenge to national defense and security from the Chinese perspective.
“Cold Confrontation” as the New Normal
To be frank, China is currently in a defensive position, and the United States is in the offensive position. With regard to strategic motivation, China seeks to defend its territorial sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction from being violated. On the contrary, America defines its interests as sustaining power to avoid the relative decline brought by peer competitors in the region. On the political level, land reclamation and accelerated COC consultations from 2014 have left China in a relatively advantaged position. Seeking to preserve its dominance of the regional order, America intends to reshape the regional balance in its favor by way of increased military deployments and enhanced strategic coordination with its allies and partners. In this regard, it is the United States challenging the de facto status quo. Finally, as the top superpower, America, with support from Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India, can mobilize far more military forces and resources than China, again putting Beijing in a defensive position.
A growing number of political elites in the United States believe that weakness and compromises during the Obama administration gave the advantage to China. Now it is time to make amends. The idea that America should strengthen its military and diplomatic balancing and even repression against China has become a form of “political correctness.” Especially in the last few months, the stressful mood that America and China are destined to go to war in the SCS has spread in the United States. In the second half of 2018, several American think tanks, such as the Rand Corporation and the Council on Foreign Relations, listed the SCS as the most likely area for conflict with China. A sort of “low-intensity war” has even become one of the options being debated by U.S. academics.
For now, policymakers in both countries have acknowledged that resorting to a “hot war” is not in line with their own interests, as it will be a lose-lose scenario. However, neither side is ready to be the first to make concessions. Under the framework of structural contradictions and conflicts of interest, the geopolitical competition between China and the United States in the SCS will continue. Reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance, intervention and anti-intervention of maritime forces will become more frequent. The power competition between the two might well increase to some degree. U.S. containing and balancing against China, along with support from Japan, Australia, the U.K., India, South Korea, and Vietnam, coupled with China’s counter measures to strengthen front-line defense deployment, will keep the SCS in a state of “cold confrontation.”
Chen Xiangmiao is a research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.