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East Asia: China Throws Strategic Challenges to the US in the South China Sea


Portending the pattern of China’s Grand Strategy to banish the United Sates strategically from East Asia in particular and from Asia-Pacific as a whole, China has thrown the first challenge to the United States in the South China Sea. China ever since its emergence as a Communist State in1949 has been laying historical claims to territories it asserts had been wrested from it over the centuries.

China had all along from 1949 had asserted claims to the South China Sea but had put a half- open lid and allowed it to simmer without it blowing over. Suddenly, so it seems, China in the spring of 2010 commenced terming the South China Sea as a “core national interest” articulated as such by Chinese interlocutors with senior US Administration officials. However, China had started ratcheting up tensions on this issue from 2008 onwards.

China placing South China Sea under the category of “core national interest” along with Taiwan, Tibet, and Xingjian clearly indicates that China has placed this issue in the category of “non-negotiable issues” and that China would use force if necessary against any nation disturbing its sovereignty over the South China Sea. This is an assertion which provides a strategic challenge to the United States and of concern to China’s neighbors.

This was a marked change from the 1990s when China had endorsed the ASEAN Declaration on peaceful resolution of the islands disputes with a host of ASEAN countries. The United States too then stepped short of taking sides on the legality of the islands disputes but made it clear that it would not countenance any use of force or threat of force to settle the disputes or any obstruction to the free passage of naval and maritime traffic through the South China Sea. Implicit in this declaration was a message to China which dominated the dispute.

Despite the endorsement of the Peace Declaration, China continued its aggressive actions in the South China Sea islands particularly against Vietnam and Philippines. China also maintained that any resolution of the disputes should be done bilaterally and not even in an overall ASEAN context. In other words it was intended to deny the United States any role on these issues.

Defining the South China Sea as a “core national interest” by China in2010 is a game-changer in the East Asia strategic geometry. In one swift stroke, China has changed the overall dimension of the South China Sea disputes from one of islands disputes with East Asia and South East Asian countries to one of a global power play between the United States and China.

In a certain way, this can also be construed as the first shot fired by China towards the inevitability, which one has maintained, of an ultimate conflict between China and the United States for strategic predominance in East Asia.

This Paper intends to examine the following issues related to the theme of this Paper:

· South China Sea : China’s and United States Opposing Stances

· China’s Strategic Arrogance in Elevating the South China Sea Issue to a Virtual Flashpoint: The Determinants

· United States Stiffens Policy Stance on the South China Sea Issue: Political Signaling to China

· Strategic Lineup in East Asia Favors the United States

South China Sea: China’s and United States Opposing Stances

Chinese maps are showing the entire South China Sea from Taiwan to Indonesia as under Chinese sovereignty. In other words the South China Sea in China’s policy formulations is virtually an inland sea of China. In July 2010 China declared that it exercises ‘indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea’.

China’s recent classification of the South China Sea as a “core national interest” akin to Taiwan, Tibet and Xingjian, carries the following strategic implications:

China is not open to any discussion on its sovereignty claims over the South China Sea and like Tibet would not hesitate to resort to use of force to ensure its sovereignty. China would not permit any foreign companies in oil and gas exploration projects in the South China Sea. Implied in this assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea is that China intends to deny the usage of this Sea to the United States and its allies If China has her way, it would mean that the operational movements of US Navy Seventh Fleet and other US Navy assets through South China Sea would be restricted In other words, China wants to push out the United States from the South China Sea Region with multiple strategic objectives in view, and these can be analyzed as under:

China’s naval entry into the Indian Ocean through the South China Sea and so also her growing dependency on the sea-lanes traversing this Sea cannot in future be interfered with by the US Navy and its allies. Unravel the United States security architecture in the Western Pacific which presently lies on China’s doorsteps extending from South Korea, Japan. Taiwan, Philippines, and now presumably incorporating Vietnam and Indonesia. Appropriate to itself the entire energy resources lying embedded over a million square miles of the South China Sea for China’s exclusive use and offset her vulnerable dependency on Gulf Region oil supplies. The United States has not been unaware of China’s strategic designs on the South China Sea, and right from the mid-1990s it has been making appropriate declarations to politically signal China that it would not be an idle spectator. Some assertions to this effect are quoted below:

In a US State Department Declaration of May 1995, adding to advice that China should adhere to the 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea, the United States officially asserted and emphasized that “ 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, and the United States” It further went on to declare that “United States would view with serious concern any maritime claims, or restriction on maritime activity in the South China Sea area that was not consistent with international law including the UN Convention on Law of the Seas.” In a similar vein, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security asserted in 1995, that “if conflict occurred in the Spratlys ( South China Sea islands claimed by China) the United States would be prepared to provide escorts and ensure that free navigation continued” At about the same time or so, one distinctly remembers the US Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord declaring that the “United States would not be an innocent bystander to use of force by China in the South China Sea” or words to that effect. A retrospective review of events thereafter would indicate that China paid no heed to these United States policy declarations and continued with its “creeping aggression” in the South China Sea.

Belatedly, in 2010, it finally dawned on the United States policy establishment that China was endangering United States forward military presence in the Western Pacific and fresh assertions were required to be made by the United States on the issue.

Since these are of recent memory they need not be reproduced verbatim. However, in essence, statements made by the US Secretary of Defense Gates at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in May 2010 and by US Secretary of State Clinton at the ASRF Meeting in Hanoi in July 2010, were unambiguous in making it known that the United States was no longer oblivious to China’s destabilizing activities in the South China Sea Region.

The US Secretary of State Clinton’s statement in Hanoi was succinct which stated: “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for International Laws in the South China Sea.”

On US Secretary of Defense statements in Singapore in May2010 China reacted by canceling his China visit that was to follow and the Chinese reaction to Secretary of State Clinton’s statement was that it amounted to an “attack on China’.

The July 2010 assertions by China that China’s sovereignty on South China Sea is indisputable and going further to classify the South China Sea as a “core national interest” seems to be a strategic broadside fired by China against the United States. It is a challenge thrown by China to the United States and it remains to be seen as to how the United States picks the gauntlet.

China’s Strategic Arrogance in Elevating the South China Sea Issue to a Virtual Flashpoint: The Determinants

China’s strategic arrogance in elevating the South China Sea issue to a virtual flashpoint and a potent one at that, once again reinforces the image of China as a nation having the propensity for conflict and brinkmanship. To the international community it is slowly dawning that China is not going to turn out as a responsible stakeholder in East Asia stability. Further, that China’s rise in the global power trajectory is going to be troublesome for the international community and more so to its East Asian neighbors.

Contextually, China may have been prompted by the following major determinants to have become more aggressive in the last two years:

Strategic vacuum in East Asia resulting from United States being strategically distracted in Afghanistan and Iraq. Chinese perception that United States power is declining and that the United States needs China’s support in Afghanistan, reining in Pakistan and also Iran. China’s accelerated military build-up with emphasis on its strategic arsenal, naval capabilities and the air force to levels deterring the United States from any military intervention, and consequently reducing American political and military coercion over China United States economic health being directly related to China’s fiscal policies United States timidity in the last few years against China arising from its strategic commitments in South West Asia United States according over-exaggerated importance to China’s strategic importance more arising from US policies in relation to Russia. United States strategically ambiguous China policies in the recent past What has really triggered China’s current aggressiveness is the perception that the United States belatedly recognizing its strategic inattentiveness to East Asia security, has in the last year or so weaned away South Korea and Philippines from their China-leanings and reassured Japan. The United States has also moved closer to Vietnam. In China’s perceptions, therefore, the United States has virtually drawn a ‘ring of containment’ around China and that China should assert itself before that noose is firmly drawn by the United States.

United States Stiffens Policy Stance on the South China Sea Issue: Political Signaling to China

The United States stiffening of policy stances on the South China Sea marks a defining shift in United States Asian and China policies. The assertions by US Defense Secretary in Singapore and the US Secretary of State in Hanoi are reflective of this.

China seems to have pushed the United States a bit too far in East Asia impinging on United States image and political and strategic standing by aggressive acts not only against Japan and South Korea but directly against the United States too.

In the South China Sea ever since 2008, China has been provocatively ‘buzzing’ United States naval ships and aircraft on surveillance duties in international waters.

China’s record of behavior in 2010 overall has been downright aggressive from the East China Sea sinking of South Korea Navy ship by a North Korean submarine, warning the US not to conduct joint exercises in the East China Sea, the coercion of Japan over the arrest of a Chinese trawler captain which deliberately rammed into a Japanese Coast Guard ship and warning US oil giant companies from prospecting in the South China Sea Also related contextually is China’s accelerated supply of fighter aircraft and frigates to Pakistan and its obtrusive military presence in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

That United States-China relations on the downslide was analyzed in detail by this author in his Paper “United States-China Relations on the Downslide” (SAAG Paper No3860 dated 14 June 2010) and need to be read to grasp the context of the showdown in the South China Sea.

The United States seems to have sent the following political signals to China through the stiffening of its stance on the South China Sea:

United States is firmly intent on refurbishing its East Asia security architecture which virtually stood neglected by the US in this decade.. United States will henceforth adopt a more pro-active role or a more intrusive role in South East Asia after having let China succeed in establishing a substantial presence in that region by using its ‘soft power’ United States is determined to sustain its strategic predominance in East Asia specifically and in Asia Pacific overall. More to the point, the United States will prevent the rise of China as a hegemonistic power in East Asia And therein lies the strategic rub for China.

One can safely assert that the United States has stiffened its stances against China prompted by a belated realization that China today was now shifting from exercise of ‘soft power’ diplomacy to one of exercise of ‘hard power’ flexing of its new found strategic muscles in East Asia and South East Asia

Strategic Lineup in East Asia Favors the United States

The strategic lineup in East Asia behind the United States scores heavily over China. Other than North Korea, China is bereft of any substantial allies in the region.

China seems to have been emboldened to adopt intransigent stances in East Asia against the United States with a feeling that lately the East Asian nations were adopting stances independent of United States and vulnerable to Chinese coercion

The charges presently being made by China that the United States by its new stances on South China Sea is following a policy of ‘divide and rule’ applies more to what China was doing all along in the region when the United States was strategically distracted in Afghanistan.

The strategic lineup behind the United States can firm-up only when the United Sates dispenses with the strategic ambiguities in its ‘China policies’ followed so far. All the nations in the US line-up are fearful of China and welcome the forward military presence of the United States. However, all of them have the expectation that the United Sates does not ‘waver’ as a result of its propensity to indulge in ‘hedging strategies’ against China.

Concluding Observations

China has finally thrown a strategic challenge to the United States in East Asia over the South China Sea issue. It was long in coming as the United States was permissive of China’s exercise of ‘soft power’ in the region while China kept building up its ‘hard power’ facilitated by United States economic investments in China.

The United States needs to call China’s bluff this time in its policy of intense brinkmanship. China can hardly afford to enter into any armed conflict with the United States over the South China Sea issue.

In this connection, it is worth quoting views of the eminent American media personality, Robert Kaplan on the subject:

“The roadside bombers in Iraq showed us the low- end of asymmetry. What China is showing now is the high-end of asymmetry, far more subtle, not designed to get into war with the United States, but to deny us access to the South China Sea. And the really hot areas in the coming years and decades, is going to be the South China Sea.”

The United States would be well advised not to lose its “strategic will” in the strategic mind-games that China will resort to against the United States in pursuance of its Grand Strategy to banish the United States from the Western Pacific.

(Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group.The writer, Dr.Subhash Kapila, is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email:

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