South China Sea Disputants as Pawns in the U.S.-China Rivalry
For small states like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, control of maritime features and parts of the South China Sea provides significant political, legal, and economic benefits. For China, in addition to these benefits, the South China Sea can provide a greater purpose – power projection of the Chinese territorial and maritime domain in the Pacific, establishing strategic depth, and challenging United States (U.S.) military dominance in the region. Observers of these multifaceted disputes often refer to the dispute as a strategic flashpoint that could ignite into a greater conflict involving the U.S. Another perspective on this dispute is to consider it partly as an aspect of a greater game of power politics in the growing Chinese–U.S. rivalry. In this scenario, the smaller disputants find themselves in the unfortunate place of being pawns in this game. Although China has been pursuing low-level coercive tactics against other countries in the South China Sea for several decades to meet its security objectives, the disputes have evolved into something greater than the legal and political context. The South China Sea disputes can be understood today as opportune means for China to project its growing military capabilities and challenge U.S. military capabilities in a region where the U.S. has strategically dominated, with the support of its Asian allies, for decades.
Part of the Chinese government’s justifications for its legal claims and actions in the South China Sea could be viewed to be primarily driven by hopes for economic gains. Chinese control of much of the disputed sea would provide China with significant oil, gas, minerals, and fishing resources. Yet, China has little incentive to resolve the South China Sea disputes, as demonstrated by its refusal to participate in the 2013-2016 arbitration case brought against it by the Philippines and continued lack of compliance with United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). With its current strategy, it appears that actively engaging in territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea serves a greater purpose for China.
Through a strategy of harassment of military and civilian vessels, maritime clashes, and land grabs of reefs, shoals, rocks, and islands, China has forced the hand of the disputants through denial strategies and taking maritime features that provide China with significant sea control in the South China Sea. The result has been reinforcements of controlled maritime features, tighter control of the seas, and denial of access to surrounding waters not only for the disputing countries, but also for the U.S. and allies. This coercive behavior makes it possible for China to both deter the U.S. through a strategy of denial and also to project its power capabilities beyond its mainland. Chinese coercive actions against the smaller state disputants in the South China Sea have therefore helped China establish strategic depth, which raises costs for U.S. military activities in the region through deterrence by denial to challenge U.S. military dominance in the region.
Chinese control of much of the South China Sea could be considered classic behavior for balance of power purposes, but it appears that Chinese strategic objectives are much broader – overturning the regional status quo. This strategy involves signaling and achieving growing military reach in the Pacific and simultaneously working to deny U.S. capabilities and power projection in the region.
The strategy of denial by China – making freedom of navigation difficult for other countries’ vessels, harassing U.S. and allied vessels, denying U.S. access to international waters claimed by China as their own territorial waters – increases the costs for continued U.S. dominance in the region. Such denial is an important step in working towards displacement of U.S. military dominance in China’s own backyard. Together with anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) and Chinese land-based capabilities, China can more actively challenge U.S. military actions in the region through anti-access/area denial deterrence (A2/AD) conducted from the militarized outposts. Chinese advanced ballistic and cruise missiles positioned on the outposts are capable of targeting U.S. bases as far away as Guam and southern Japan, and naval ships in the Pacific.
Together with a denial strategy, China’s extension of its military reach beyond its mainland helps to further achieve its long-term goal of overturning the regional status quo and asserting itself as the regional hegemon. By establishing outposts that are essentially like offshore bases, China’s activities in the South China Sea provide strategic access into the Pacific. Although it would be more direct to project power into the Pacific between the southern Japanese islands in the Ryukyu island chain and Taiwan, strong military presence by the U.S. and allies in Northeast Asia impede this access to the Pacific. Southeast Asia and the South China Sea provide the best option for China’s expansion into the Pacific, especially with a weakened U.S.– Philippines alliance. Combined with becoming a blue water navy, power projection provides China with a path to become a serious contender as the major power in the region. This regional power transition would displace the U.S. as the dominant power in the region – and possibly beyond.
In this context, the South China Sea acts as the main stage on which China is playing out its broader strategic objectives. The South China Sea disputes can therefore be interpreted in the context of great power politics, rather than merely claims of territorial sovereignty of disputed islands and legal claims to maritime features and waters. Unfortunately, smaller state disputants in the South China Sea have found themselves in the role of pawns in a greater game of power politics between China and the U.S. With no end in sight of this growing rivalry, these disputes will likely continue to simmer for some time. To minimize experiencing further collateral damage as pawns in this rivalry, the smaller states must pursue unambiguous foreign policy strategies, primarily involving clear military alignment with the U.S. and other Quad countries. In turn, the U.S. and allies must expand assistance to these countries to allow maximization of their defense capabilities and to have the capacity to work with the U.S. and other allies in more effectively countering Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and beyond. As noted in the recent Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States, these Southeast Asian countries are “central to the regional architecture,” and therefore must be treated as more than just pawns.
Dr. Krista E. Wiegand is Director of the Global Security Program and Faculty Fellow at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, and the Chair of Middle East Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is an International Relations scholar specializing in international conflict management and political violence.