Small Wars Journal

The South China Sea: Containing a Regional Conflict

Tue, 08/30/2016 - 6:59am

The South China Sea: Containing a Regional Conflict

Daniel E. Ward


The current escalation of territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and the increased military footprints employed by both China and US, have resulted in simmering regional tensions which could boil over into global conflict. The US must ensure it is not simply being responsive to Chinese moves, but instead base decisions on strategic objectives. What ends are in play with US grand strategy? If the answer is regional stability, security of resources, and countering potential aggression, then the South China Sea issue rests squarely in the maritime domain, but this must be supported by the full spectrum of instruments of power (IOP). The grand strategy should include a cyclical element of reevaluation and not be so rigid as to preclude adjustments. The US must heed the lessons of Julian Corbett, noting both “that naval strategy work within the overall national strategy” and “the object of naval warfare being in his view to control maritime communications, including commercial and economic aspects” [1]. Naval forces and the sea domain are the foundation for military IOP in the South China Sea, but complementing factors must be supportive in a mutually beneficial strategy. The “ends” must not be seconded to the ways and means; goals must be proactive or the US risks engaging in a strictly reactive position.

Over the last several years, China has aggressively moved to occupy various islands in the South China Sea, to include artificially increasing territory by expanding reefs and low lying chains, several of which have disputed territorial claims with other nations. The major regional entities in these disputes include Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with its mutually supportive economic and security agreements. As a result, “the head of the U.S. military's Pacific Command said China is "clearly militarizing" the South China Sea” [2]. The escalation between China and the US has centered on US interests in the region and involved Chinese action consisting of “island building and naval patrols” which is opposed by the US, stating its opposition to “restrictions on freedom of navigation and unlawful sovereignty claims” [3]. Most recently a Hague “tribunal ruled in a sweeping decision”…”that China has no legal basis for claiming much of the South China Sea” [4]. However the court has not resources, military, or police to enforce its ruling. In response China has made claims that it would “establish an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea” if it deemed one necessary for security [5].

Regional Resources

Though the US is not reliant on “Pacific oil”, many of the US’ allies in the region are dependent on South China Sea production. China is capable of threatening energy reserves in the region, and the need for energy is a primary reason the “South China Sea has become a focal point for U.S. – China rivalry in the Western Pacific” [6]. As China demonstrates a disregard to territorial claims by its neighbors, the control being exerted over these energy sources is of concern to the US. It is estimated the South China Sea’s annual transshipment worth amounts to over $5 trillion in goods and natural resources. This includes energy resources in areas under dispute, commercial fishing, and shipping lanes which handle the bulk of the region’s resources. If the region was devoid of resources, and territorial claims were simply historic points of argument, the US would likely re-evaluate its level of engagement. China is arguably invoking its own take on the Monroe Doctrine, by implying it is the region’s primary power and therefore it should be allowed to control regional affairs without undue external intervention. Understanding this premise forces the US to decide if vital interests are at stake. The huge resource pool supplying ASEAN nations to which the US is sympathetic underscores the importance of this burgeoning issue. Heeding Corbett, US strategy should focus on “the objective of controlling maritime communications” to protect “one’s own commerce” while causing “interference with the enemy’s economic interests” [7]. While not directly engaging China, naval forces can deter aggression through control of the sea.

Allies and Containment

The US finds itself in the role of supporting Pacific allies to protect not only resource supply, but the integrity of allied nations and their interests. Disputed claims are made by a number of nations, to include China, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines, over an expanse of South China Sea islands such as the Spratly Islands; Paracel Islands; Scarborough Shoal; and the Macclesfield Bank [8]. Because these nations may not independently be strong enough to challenge Chinese aggression, the US must utilize the diplomatic IOP to strengthen and reinforce a coalition approach to the Chinese threat. This would not only serve to bolster allies, but to contain the matter and direct it as a regional vice global matter. This is already evident as the US has “countered Chinese pressure” by “clearly signaling its interest in the South China Sea and strengthening security relationships with allies and supporters” [9]. However ASEAN nations may need to be buttressed with additional support to counter Chinese ambitions. As US naval deployments are operating far from infrastructure, capable allies are needed as a backdrop. India has shown an inclination to become involved as a foil to China, and while “China may have leverage over the ASEAN claimants because of its size and proximity…India has the status and power to resist China” [10]. India represents a wild card in the region, and the US must make overtures to ensure we understand India’s intentions and interests, and to engage in coordinated efforts vice working at cross purposes. Australia is already serving as a hub for US Marine Corps units, and has a historical position in the region. This is coupled with “its status as a reliable ally with a stable government” allowing the US potential “positions from which forces may be surged forward into conflict zones in the Western Pacific” [11].


The Chinese, while not currently on par with the US in terms of naval power, have closer geographic ties to the South China Sea region, and are developing their strength and shore side anti-ship capabilities. Chinese doctrine emphasizes a layered approach to defense, which is coupled with development of a nascent aircraft carrier program, ballistic submarines, and anti-ship ballistic missiles. Chinese naval strategy seems to emphasize recognition of its regional capabilities, and its combination of means allows for a Corbett style approach of controlling the South China Sea, vice a large scale blue-water navy. The US has countered Chinese moves by exercising transit through innocent passage, stating “innocent passage was absolutely the right mechanism to use to challenge those excessive claims" [12]. Innocent passage, an international concept involving transit through another state’s territorial waters so long as no prejudicial action is taken, demonstrates the US does not recognize Chinese claims on certain islands, but these actions must be properly understood by both sides to accurately reflect the intended message. Developments in the Paracel chain demonstrate a need to adhere to the idea of mutually supporting domains. The Chinese have moved fighter and fighter-bomber aircraft to the island chain, backed by air defense platforms. The air domain obviously enters the fray, whether as a part of naval projection or from allied bases such as Australia. This also links to an overall need for cyber domain participation, both to support intelligence needs and from an operations security, and potentially offensive standpoint, to negate Chinese technology if feasible [13].

Countermeasures and Recommendations

We must understand China’s intentions and its strategy to effectively apply ways and means to meet our own ends. China’s naval strategy has three basics goals: preventing Taiwan from declaring independence and deterring US support; protecting its own trade routes and energy supplies; and eventually attaining a naval nuclear capability in the Western Pacific [14]. Noting these principles, the US should realize China is invoking a regional attitude towards the maritime domain. The US in turn should not simply focus on messages via the military, such as exercise of innocent passage. With the expanse of the Pacific, and reliance on smaller regional allies, with a central backstop in Australia and perhaps India, the US should follow the idea of controlling maritime choke points, thereby demonstrating a potential threat to China’s commerce. Rather than concentrating forces at all times, dispersal using a “cruiser” concept to patrol and control lines of maritime communication would serve to protect sea lanes and allow for addressing localized threats by China. Dispersed units can concentrate when needed for potential large scale action. “Such a strategic combination of concentration and dispersal in warfare, Corbett argues, allows a fleet to engage the enemy’s central mass when needed but in the meantime to preserve the flexibility necessary to control maritime communications and to meet minor attacks in several areas at once” [15].

The US must also work with ASEAN and other regional allies to increase a unified posture, such as joint patrolling, as well as examining options for increased forward deployment of US forces to the region on an ‘as needed’ basis. This would serve to place a more stable deterrent element in the vicinity of China’s claims. However a careful and empirical study must be made to determine regional capabilities for supporting more robust forward deployments, which could augment the ‘cruiser concept’ as outlined by Corbett’s strategy. Regarding existing regional infrastructure, the Philippines “doesn't allow for permanent stationing of U.S. forces”…”Australia lacks the maintenance facilities required by a carrier strike group”…and Guam’s facilities are “outdated and would require massive investment to accommodate a carrier” [16]. Perhaps areas immediately outside but in close proximity to China’s claims, such as the Natuna and Riau Islands, could be used for temporary basing. This would place forces in close striking range but allow for ‘diplomatic high-ground’ as ships would be outside China’s territorial claims.


The 2011 National Military Strategy recognized the current global construct as “multi-nodal” with “coalitions based on diplomatic, military, and economic power” [17].Within the DIME construct, each IOP must have role supportive of the others and the grand strategy must link this mutually beneficial interchange. This is clearly evident in the current tensions between China, ASEAN, and the US in the South China Sea. Clearly a maritime domain issue, multiple IOP must support naval efforts, which in turn cannot operate in complete independence from other domains. Land and air forces must be positioned to leverage and assist naval forces, as well as cyber capabilities in a potentially technologically driven conflict between the US and Chinas. “What was once a maritime territorial dispute involving China, Vietnam, and the other littoral ASEAN states has become something more disturbing for the peace and stability of the Western Pacific” [18]. The question is whether the US allows events to drive the train or whether solid grand strategy, based on principles outlined by Corbett, can be used to send a strong message to China and contain these issues at a regional level. The answer is a unified approach with partners such as ASEAN, Australia, India, and others to occupy space and aggressively patrol. This limits China’s breathing space but does not go so far as to suffocate their forces. If China’s maritime ambitions are not checked, then US dominance of the Pacific will be increasingly challenged.

End Notes

[1] Klein, John. “Corbett in Orbit: A Maritime Model for Strategic Space Theory.” Naval War College Review, Winter 2004, Vol. LVII, No. 1, 2004, p. 63-64.

[2] Tomlinson, Lucas. “China Sends Jets to Contested Island in South China Sea.” Fox News, February 24, 2016. (accessed February 26, 2016).

[3] BBC News. “Q&A: South China Sea Dispute.” October 27, 2015. (accessed February 26, 2016).

[4] Corder, Mike and Jim Gomez. “China Has No Basis for its South China Sea Claims: Tribunal”. Associated Press, July 12, 2016. (accessed July 31, 2016).

[5] BBC News. “South China Sea: China 'has Right to Set Up Air Defense Zone'”. July 13, 2016. (accessed July 31, 2016).

[6] Buszynski, Leszek. "The South China Sea: Oil, Maritime Claims, and U.S.-China Strategic Rivalry." The Washington Quarterly 35 (2), 2012, p. 139.

[7] Klein, John. “Corbett in Orbit: A Maritime Model for Strategic Space Theory.” Naval War College Review, Winter 2004, Vol. LVII, No. 1, 2004, p. 64.

[8] Tomlinson, Lucas and Yonat Friling. “China Sends Surface-to-Air Missiles to Contested Island in Provocative Move.” Fox News. February 16, 2016. February 26, 2016).

[9] Buszynski, Leszek. "The South China Sea: Oil, Maritime Claims, and U.S.-China Strategic Rivalry." The Washington Quarterly 35 (2), 2012, p. 148.

[10] Ibid, p. 142.

[11] Ibid, p. 150.

[12] Seck, Hope Hodge. “US May Sail More Ships in South China Sea, Navy Commander Says.” February 19, 2016. February 26, 2016).

[13] Tomlinson, Lucas. “China Sends Jets to Contested Island in South China Sea.” Fox News, February 24, 2016. (accessed February 26, 2016).

[14] Buszynski, Leszek. "The South China Sea: Oil, Maritime Claims, and U.S.-China Strategic Rivalry." The Washington Quarterly 35 (2), 2012, p. 145.

[15] Klein, John. “Corbett in Orbit: A Maritime Model for Strategic Space Theory.” Naval War College Review, Winter 2004, Vol. LVII, No. 1, 2004, p. 66.

[16] Robson, Seth. “Analysts Recommend Second US Aircraft Carrier for Far East”. Stars and Stripes, July 29, 2016. (accessed July 31, 2016).

[17] Mullen, Michael. The National Military Strategy of the United States of America 2011. Washington DC: Department of Defense, 2011, p. 2.

[18] Buszynski, Leszek. "The South China Sea: Oil, Maritime Claims, and U.S.-China Strategic Rivalry." The Washington Quarterly 35 (2), 2012, p. 151.

About the Author(s)

Mr. Daniel E. Ward is a former US Coast Guard officer. His work experience includes maritime and riverine operations, protective services and security operations, and criminal investigations. He has spent several years in Latin America and the Middle East, and has extensive work experience training indigenous forces. He holds a BS in civil engineering, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Defense and Strategic Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. The views presented are his own and do not represent the U.S. government, his employer, or an official position.


“What was once a maritime territorial dispute involving China, Vietnam, and the other littoral ASEAN states has become something more disturbing for the peace and stability of the Western Pacific”

So what is this "something more disturbing"? While China has been aggressively coming up with new ways to pressure littoral neighbors, and has enthusiastically built logistically unsupportable "bases" on every rock they can tie a line to, this is still basically a collection of regional territorial disputes. China has neither expressed intent or moved to restrict freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, or the airspace over it (the brief ADIZ over Japanese waters was more a poke in the eye to Japan than serious restriction of flight). Frankly, any serious effort to restrict commerce through the SCS would hurt China more than any other major Pacific power. While they would certainly prefer foreign navies (particularly ours) treat the SCS as a Chinese bathtub, a shooting war would again prove more costly to them, as it would discourage needed foreign investment and economic partnership.

We certainly need to pay attention to Chinese actions, and stand with regional allies where it makes sense, but not escalate this friction out of proportion to reality.

An interesting perspective and assessment of the strategic situation in the Seas off of China including in the South China Sea. As a Navy Officer, in distant past decades, I deployed (Ship’s Company) numerous times into that area of the world on a variety of ships -- including on a CVS, DD, and DE.

At some point this country must accept the fact that there are Regional Powers in this world, and China is most certainly one of those Regional Powers as is Russia. It is time for the U.S. to acknowledge that China will continue to improve its military capabilities, and recognize that its geographic position combined with the size of that nation insures that it will eventually be the absolutely dominant power in a given geographical sphere extending beyond their nation’s borders. Accordingly, the U.S. should determine the natural borders of that Chinese Sphere of Influence and determine the most cost effective means of limiting their dominance / influence to that area – which is precisely what the West achieved in the post-World War II area when it acknowledged the Soviet Union’s Sphere of Influence, but contained its influence to that area.

To do so the U.S. has to carefully assess our seeming National Interests in the various parts of that area and assess which are actually worth securing using what will prove to be a costly military presence and which interests should be simply written off as not worth the cost or incurring the risks associated with sustaining a military presence in what clearly will be a contested area. A careful assessment should convince anyone understanding both the benefits of geographic position and the risks associated with attempting to operate militarily in a de facto confined areas that some simply need to be de facto ceded to the Chinese – without our openly declaring so up front.

However, if the U.S. deems the Pacific Ocean Area to be an area of strategic value – and we do for a variety of reasons, the same type of geographic analysis will indicate that the U.S. should provide a substantial U.S. Navy and Air Force presence combined with Army based A2AD capabilities in selected countries on the geographic perimeter of the area which China will eventually control. A presence of such a nature that it can prevent Chinese from successfully extending their strategic influence into the Pacific Ocean Area. In simple terms, we need to establish a trip wire presence distant enough from China that it enables them room for expansion, but one which limits that expansion. It has to be a physically protected barrier, the presence of which advises one’s potential opponent that it will be protected by any means necessary including the use of nuclear weapons.

But, in this modern day and age common sense dictates that we must be aware / recognize that an opponent such as China will strive to develop the weapons systems and platforms that will enable them to bypass or overwhelm such a barrier. That means the U.S. must continually invest in and develop all the weapons and search systems needed to achieve and sustain our domination in military environments such as in the Electro-Magnetic Spectrum, in the Undersea Warfare Realm, in the A2AD environment, and continue to improve our Anti-Missile capabilities among others.

With the necessary U.S. military presence and accompanying capabilities and with their own force capability Japan and South Korea given their geographic position – with the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean at their backs, can maintain their strategic independence and provide part of the barrier that geographically limits China’s sphere of influence. Further, with substantial U.S. military support and protection, the Philippines can similarly maintain its strategic independence vis-à-vis China. However, like it not, the Philippines will have to look Eastward – not Westward into the South China Sea. There is zero probability the Philippines can achieve any degree of success in a contest with China over the Spratley or other comparatively distant Islands in those waters. There simply is nothing of strategic value on those Islands worth the cost of a conflict with China over them. And, if there are substantial oil or other resources in the South China Sea -- they will taken by China, like it or not. That potential presence of oil resources and their acquisition by the Chinese will have zero negative impact versus their current performance on the economies of the other lands in the area of the South China Sea.

The other land areas geographically well positioned for a use as barrier bases to limit Chinese advancement would include both Taiwan and Singapore. Taiwan brings with it its own special problems – including the fact that the Taiwanese own Foxconn – the single largest manufacturing contractor on the Chinese Mainland – and they may not be willing to place that ownership at risk given that it is a cash cow for Taiwan.

The Chinese are also currently establishing Navy Bases in both the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. That movement has led to increased cooperation between the Indian Navy and the U.S. Navy. Both India and Japan have growing Naval Forces that will need to be able to compete against / and limit the effect of the presence of Chinese Naval Forces in their home waters. In addition, according to articles in Australian and Indian Journals, it appears that the U.S., Japan and India are establishing some form of an updated SOSUS type barrier along the Chinese Coast and into the Indian Ocean to track Chinese Submarines.

Also, let us remember that the Chinese are exceedingly practical from a strategic and economic perspective. They take the long view and not the short view. Strategically clever are they and they recognize that at current there is an economic factor limiting their advancement into the Pacific Ocean Area which would bring them into a direct contest of sorts with the U.S. At least at present, and since the year 2000, the Chinese rather significantly benefit from the U.S. having an annual $750 Billion Manufactured Goods Trade Deficit (Negative Trade $ Balance) with China. Almost all of the cash flow generated by that negative balance of trade (from a U.S. perspective) flows into Chinese hands – not into the profits of American Corporations doing business in that area – although they probably retain several billions of it in overseas held cash generated by their operating profits. The Chinese government obtains substantial billions of surplus cash from the above noted Trade Deficit – and they do not invest it all in U.S. Treasury bonds or Real Estate. It is that cash surplus which provides China with the funding needed to build up their military. The Chinese are not going to act precipitately to upset that Cash Flow generator – at least not for the foreseeable future.

At least in my opinion the above is a brief statement of how the U.S. should strategically deal with the Chinese.