The long-running, multi-party dispute over control of islets in the South China Sea (SCS) is worsening both in rhetoric and provocative activity. Meeting in late May at the Shangri-La Dialogue on regional security, US and Chinese defense officials sparred over responsibility for the increased tension, though they stopped short of issuing threats. In fact, all sides to the dispute say they want to avoid violence, prefer a diplomatic resolution, and support freedom of navigation.
Both the US and China insist that the dispute notwithstanding, their relationship overall is positive and enduring. But China, claiming indisputable sovereignty over the SCS, is backing its claim in ways that alarm the US and several Asian governments: construction of an air strip on the Spratly Islands, a land reclamation project that has artificially expanded its claimed territory, and most recently emplacement of two mobile artillery vehicles.
The Pentagon has responded by publicly discussing US options such as flyovers and navigation in Chinese-claimed air and sea space. A US navy surveillance aircraft has already challenged China’s sovereignty claim by overflying Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, prompting a Chinese order (which the aircraft ignored) to leave the area. In the meantime, US military assistance to other claimants, including Vietnam and the Philippines, has enabled their coast guards to at least keep an eye on Chinese activities.
The US-China debate over the SCS would be a tempest in a teapot were it not for two other sources of contention. One is the gas and oil potential underneath the South China Sea, long subject to intense competition. The other is the friction arising from the different US and Chinese strategic postures in East Asia. The US deploys enormous air, naval, and nuclear power across the region. Rising China, one Chinese scholar writes, “is no longer susceptible to U.S. coercion or bullying. Under President Xi Jinping, the more confrontational stance Washington takes, the more assertive Beijing will become in response.”
The US “rebalancing” of forces in Asia since 2009, with emphasis on deploying additional naval power to the Pacific; its backing of Japan in Japan’s territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea; and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that aims to undercut China’s commercial as well as political success in Asia—these are among the US moves in Asia that have prompted Chinese pushback both economically and militarily. China’s gradual buildup in the SCS should be seen as part of that pushback. Its latest official strategy statement, issued (surely not coincidentally) on May 26, explicitly links “maritime military struggle” and “active defense” to the “provocative” actions and “meddling” of foreign parties in that area. The strategy statement conceives of a greatly increased role for the Chinese navy in “offshore waters defense.”