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US-China Competition Will Heat up the South China Sea

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US-China Competition Will Heat up the South China Sea

The competition between major countries will be the biggest threat to stability in the region.

US-China Competition Will Heat up the South China Sea

The amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1), center, maneuvers alongside the Philippine navy landing platform dock ship BRP Tarlac (LD 601) and offshore patrol vessel BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PS 16) in support of Exercise Balikatan 2019 in the South China Sea, April 5, 2019.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Barker

On June 1, 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense officially released its first “Indo-Pacific Strategy” report. The essence of this strategy is to strengthen the United States’ bilateral alliances and multilateral cooperation mechanisms in economics, security, and maritime affairs in order to build a joint network encompassing South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Northeast Asia.

In terms of strategy, the United States has used the South China Sea issue as a wooing mechanism to force countries inside and outside of the region to take sides with the ultimate goal of building a military alliance against China in the Indo-Pacific region. Tactically, the U.S. has increased its unilateral or joint power deployment operations under the framework of the “Indo-Pacific Strategy.” This practice has not only caused the geopolitical competition triggered by naval military games between China and the United States to become increasingly fierce, but also posed new challenges to maritime security in the region.

The main consideration of the U.S. “Indo-Pacific Strategy” is to prevent the bilateral balance of maritime power from continuing to develop in favor of China. Its tactics are designed to weaken the continually growing influence of China in the vast Indo-Pacific region, including the South China Sea, and to maintain the United States’ overwhelming superiority of strength. Because of the “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” the future will witness increasingly violent contests between China and the U.S. system of allies and partners. Therefore, the security pattern in the South China Sea region is increasingly evolving into a competition between major countries.

In the future, the competition may evolve in the following ways:

First, the “Freedom of Navigation Operations” conducted by the United States in the disputed areas of the South China Sea will be more provocative and targeted, as will the involvement of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). The joint FONOPS and the joint law enforcement role played by the USCG under its “Indo-Pacific Strategy” framework in the South China Sea will bring a new means for the United States to deter the growth of China’s maritime forces and as well as muscle the militarization of the South China Sea.

Since 2017, the U.S. military has significantly increased the frequency, scope and intensity of its operations in the South China Sea region. Since Donald Trump took office, the American military has conducted so-called “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPS) 15 times in the South China Sea. In this year alone, the Pentagon has dispatched one or two destroyers to the territorial seas or the adjacent waters of China’s Xisha (Paracels), Nansha (Spratlys), and Zhongsha Islands (Scarborough Shoal) six times without the permission of Beijing.

In addition to these so-called FONOPS, the U.S. military’s underwater forces and airpower have also frequently conducted close reconnaissance against China in the South China Sea. According to incomplete statistics, American B-52 bombers deployed in Guam flew to the Vietnamese Sea at least 16 times last year to carry out military missions; about four times the frequency compared to 2017 statistics.

It is foreseeable that, under the framework of its “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” the United States will not only continue to escalate FONOPS in the South China Sea in terms of frequency, scale, and geographical scope, but also take more diverse and challenging means to exert pressure on China in the security field. On one hand, American allies such as Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom may conduct further joint operations with the United States on the basis of the existing unilateral military operations in the South China Sea. On the other hand, the U.S. will institutionalize and normalize the law enforcement actions taken by its Coast Guard and gradually conduct joint maritime law enforcement with border countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Therefore, direct contests of “grey power” between China and the U.S. in the South China Sea are on the horizon.

Second, accelerating military base construction and power deployment in the areas surrounding the South China Sea will be the main means for the United States to address China’s military influence.

According to the Indo-Pacific Strategy report, the U.S. military currently has over 2,000 aircraft, 200 warships and submarines, and 370,000 military personnel deployed in the Indo-Pacific region. The report contained a plan to purchase 110 fourth and fifth generation fighters and 400 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles, among other defense materials suitable for maritime tactics. Additionally, it notes plans to purchase 10 destroyers, as well as ballistic missiles, between 2020 and 2024 to improve U.S. capabilities in anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare. The South China Sea and its surrounding areas are the geographical center of the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” and the U.S. military will inevitably accelerate and intensify its strength deployment, base construction, and forms of military operations in this region.

Third, the existing bilateral and multilateral military exercises conducted by the United States that have covered the South China Sea will occur more frequently in neighboring areas, and the possibility of the U.S. military entering disputed areas of the South China Sea cannot be excluded.

According to statistics, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) leads more than 150 joint bilateral and multilateral military exercises annually. In 2014 and 2015, this number exceeded 160 and 175, respectively. Examples include the U.S.-Philippines Balikatan joint military exercise, the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, the trilateral U.S.-India-Japan Malabar exercise, the Pacific Partnership exercise, and Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT, involving the U.S. and a number of Southeast and South Asian partner navies).

Consequently, the implementation of the U.S. “Indo-Pacific Strategy” is likely to further increase the frequency and scope of U.S. military joint military exercises in the South China Sea and its surrounding areas, including disputed waters. In particular, the U.S. military is concerned that countries outside the region may be excluded by the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) when it comes to regional joint military exercises. Therefore, it will likely hold joint exercises in the disputed waters of the South China Sea in order to create a fait accompli before the COC comes into effect.

Fourth, other stakeholder nation-states will follow the United States in participating in the geopolitical competition in the South China Sea in order to maximize their interests in the process of forming rules and establishing order in the Indo-Pacific.

With the implementation of the U.S. “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” some countries outside the South China Sea region, such as Japan, Australia, India, the United Kingdom, and France, will “meddle” in the South China Sea for their own benefit, therefore escalating the complex geopolitical competition in the region.

In order to show its bona fides as a political and military power, Japan will use this U.S. strategy to further intensify its military and quasi-military presence in the South China Sea. It cannot be excluded that the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) could possibly intend normalized deployment of its forces in the South China Sea and aim to establish military bases in the surrounding countries.

Australia has always been a staunch supporter of the American-dominated Indo-Pacific regional order. Inspired by Washington’s strategy and its own Indo-Pacific policy orientation, it may further strengthen its support for and cooperation with the actions taken by the United States targeting the South China Sea. This potential for joint action with the U.S. may be just an issue of timing.

Farther west, India believes that the U.S. “Indo-Pacific Strategy” can satisfy the needs of its “Act East” and “peripheral extension” policies Consequently, India hopes to fully participate with the strategy in the economic, political, diplomatic, and military fields, thereby expanding its influence to the region beyond South Asia and the Indian Ocean. In the name of maritime security cooperation, India will also participate in the military exercises currently dominated by the U.S., Japan, and Australia in the areas surrounding the South China Sea and strengthen its policy coordination with the United States on the regional issues found therein.

In short, with the gradual implementation of the U.S. “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” the competition of major external countries such as Japan, India, and Australia for power in the region will be increasingly fierce, the geopolitical situation at sea will become increasingly complex, and the future security situation in the South China Sea will continue to cause concern.

Fifth, the consultations of the Code of Conduct (COC) face interference due to the changing geopolitical pattern and intentions of countries inside and outside the region to maximize their security interests. There should be no overestimation of the role of an effective COC in guaranteeing the security order in the South China Sea.

One of the main objectives of Washington’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” is to establish a rule-based regional order with the United States as the dominating influence. This objective directly conflicts with that of China and ASEAN member states, who intend to take the COC consultations as an opportunity to establish a regional order based on openness and inclusivity. On the one hand, the contents of the COC that are under consultation, including joint military operations, resource development, and maritime law enforcement in the disputed areas, are all major interests and concerns of the United States on the South China Sea issue. For example, the U.S. has expressed grave concern on the regulation of joint military exercise and oil and gas development conducted by the countries outside the South China Sea region, which China and ASEAN member states have arrived at the single draft negotiating text of the COC.

On the other hand, due to the wooing efforts and influence of the United States, some ASEAN member states like Vietnam and the Philippines may voice reservations in COC consultations either because they want to safeguard their vested interests in the South China Sea or have to make a helpless choice after a strategic consideration of the balance of major countries.

Therefore, the U.S. wants to construct new rules in the South China Sea by its “agents” in order to influence the order in the region. This will not only disturb the process of COC consultations but also may create new differences and contradictions between the consulting countries. A more severe consequence is how this would exert a negative disturbance on the regional security order established by China and ASEAN member states based on the Code of Conduct.

We should take the COC consultations as an opportunity to build a rule-based and open marine security cooperation mechanism in the South China Sea, as well as to establish effective rules and order based on a full consideration of the interests and claims of all parties inside and outside the region.

Although there are presently security dialogues and cooperation mechanisms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+), and the ASEAN Plus 1 Multilateral Joint Military Exercises in the South China Sea region, these mechanisms are generally loose. They are not only short of strict institutional design, but also are hardly used to eliminate mutual security suspicions between countries inside the region. Due to this, the security integration in this region is still at a relatively low level. Moreover, with the change in the balance of power between China and the United States and the intensification of major countries’ competition for power in the region, it is difficult for the security structure dominated by ASEAN and the U.S. to maintain order and stability in this region.

In order to break the dilemma of security governance in the South China Sea, China and ASEAN member states should first commit themselves to establishing a stable and effective institutional arrangement. All parties may take the consultations of the COC text as an important opportunity and consider the different concerns of the countries outside the region, such as the freedom of navigation and overflight based on the rules of international law, and of the countries inside the region, such as stability of the regional security situation and maritime interests. On the basis of such consideration, we can establish norms, rules, and corresponding supervision and punishment measures on “what can be done” and “what cannot be done” by all parties inside and outside the region, as week as on the corresponding obligations and responsibilities borne by them.

Wu Shicun has a Ph.D. in history and is president and senior research fellow of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies as well as chairman of the board of directors of the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea.