"Creating Peace in the South China Sea"

David Cramer

SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer 2010)





Note: This article uses in-text citations; full references for these are provided at the end of the article.


The South China Sea is becoming an increasingly vital and volatile area of the world, especially in light of the recent growth of the Chinese navy.  Key to the issue are the Spratley and Paracel islands, a group of seemingly insignificant patches of rock and reef in the South China Sea.  They may contain petroleum, however, and there are currently seven countries laying claim to parts of the area.  The South China Sea is also a critical line of communication and transportation, and its vulnerability worries regional players from the Philippines to Japan.  In the face of a rising China with serious intent to assert itself in the region, creating peace in the South China Sea presents an important test, both of a changing US role in the Pacific, a growing role for the Chinese internationally, and the feasibility of truly internationalizing security on the high seas. 

The Islands

Though seemingly insignificant, these groupings of low lying shoals and reefs have a long history.  A grand total of seven nations lay claim to parts or all of the area: Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam (Milivojevic 1989, 73).  A quick survey on Google Earth reveals that the majority of the tiny islands have had small structures, planted areas, or deeper channels dug into them by the various contending parties. Political tensions had simmered under the surface until recently, when the possibility of oil and natural gas finds in the region stoked renewed conflict. 

It has been argued that the need to protect Chinese interests in these islands was one of the central arguments the PLA Navy used for its rapid buildup beginning in the 1980’s (Roy 1998, 74).   In fact, in an article published in China Daily, Zhang Lianzhong, a navy commander was quoted as saying “It is high time for China to readjust its maritime strategy and make more efforts to recover the oil and gas resources in the South China Sea… of course, the Navy is ready to offer assistance in this endeavor”(Anming 1992, 1).  This and other public arguments were used as a form of lobbying for the PLA Navy to secure more funding for its modernization program.

Tensions have risen over the islands.  In a recent interview with a former U.S. negotiator, a Chinese official was quoted as saying: “The South China Sea is a core interest of the Chinese people.  You understand?  Like Tibet and Taiwan.”  By raising the South China Sea issue to the level of a core interest, the Chinese have added it to their sacrosanct umbrella of internal affairs in which they brook no interference.

At the recent ASEAN summit meeting in July 2010, Secretary Clinton offered a sharp rebuke to the Chinese when she announced the American intention to internationalize the conflict over the disputed area.  Stating that resolving the issue and assuring freedom of the seas was “a leading diplomatic priority,” she threw American support behind recent Vietnamese efforts to resolve the issue multilaterally.

“Peaceful Rise” of the PLA Navy

The recent development in Chinese military capabilities has been duly noted by the United States military establishment.  The Quadrennial Defense Review of January 2010 tacitly admits a growing threat, while recognizing the need of the U.S. to act as a stabilizing partner in the region: “The rise of China… will continue to shape an international system that is no longer easily defined - one in which the United States will remain the most powerful actor but must increasingly work with key allies and partners if it is to sustain stability and peace” (QDR 2010, iii).  Most alarming to neighbors such as India and Japan has been China’s acquisition of a formidable blue water navy.  Though most sensational are plans for Chinese aircraft carrier production, China has also made great strides in submarine production and in area-denial and anti-access technologies.  This newfound naval strength has found expression in the PLA Navy’s anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, now in their fourth tour, indicating an ability to “go global” in terms of force projection.  Future PLA Navy plans call for a more active role for the Navy in the area, including roles in international disaster relief (O’Brien 2009).

The biggest potential change in Chinese navy power is the addition of aircraft carriers.  The Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress on Chinese military capabilities states: “The PLA Navy is considering building multiple aircraft carriers and associated ships by 2020”(Annual Report to Congress 2010, 18).  The addition of aircraft carriers to the PLA navy represents an obvious increase in force projection capabilities, and is also a sign of the nationalist undercurrent associated with military growth in China.  Huang Xueping, a spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense announced Chinese intentions of deploying aircraft carriers in December of 2008.  He stated: “Aircraft carriers are a symbol of a country's overall national strength as well as the competitiveness of its naval force” (Oster 2008, A4). 

The Chinese submarine fleet has also grown substantially in recent years.  The fleet includes new nuclear powered attack submarines, as well as older models and ballistic missile subs.  The fleet has around sixty vessels total (Annual Report to Congress 2010, 48).  The recent construction of a new underwater submarine base on Hainan Island indicates interest in a robust submarine presence in the South China Sea (Harding 2010).  According to reports obtained by the Federation of American Scientist from the U.S. Navy, Chinese submarines went on twelve long-distance patrols in 2008, which is an all-time high. The Chinese fleet had previously averaged only three patrols per year (Kristensen 2009).

China has also surpassed South Korea as the largest shipbuilder in the world (“China Now...” 2009), but it is not simply a growth in sheer numbers that poses a threat to the traditional U.S. dominance in Asia.  The Chinese approach has increasingly focused on anti-access and area-denial strategies: denying American forces the ability to mobilize and access surrounding areas in the event of war (Annual Report to Congress 2010, 20).  Recent breakthroughs in these technologies have increased their ability to do so. 

Chinese naval mines have become some of the most advanced in the world.  The PLA Navy is one of the few world navies actively pursuing advances in offensive mine warfare (Erickson 2009, 2).  In Chinese eyes, mines represent the most effective way of countering large U.S. submarine offensives and could hamper American carrier groups’ abilities to move freely.  China has made advances in other area-denial technologies as well.  One major element of China’s anti-naval strategy is its ballistic missile program.  The PLA Navy has begun to augment traditional anti-ship ballistic missiles with new on-board guidance systems that can specifically target vulnerable areas of enemy ships, specifically aircraft carriers (Annual Report to Congress 2010, 21).  Other developments include missiles with an effective range of an area that includes Guam.  Other more tangential technological advances such as EMP weapons to disrupt electronics and anti-satellite capabilities which could effectively blind American forces on the high seas are under development.

The development that has put neighbors, particularly India, most on edge has been China’s “string of pearls strategy” in the Indian Ocean.  This, simply put, is the development of a string of naval facilities stretching from Myanmar in the East to Kenya in the West.  Port projects funded by the Chinese act as a vast infrastructure designed to defend China’s energy and mineral investments in some of the most dangerous areas of the world.  The project that most worries the Indians is the construction of a deep-water facility in Gwadar, Pakistan.  Other Chinese projects include supply ports in Sri Lanka, a facility in Chittagong Bangladesh, surveillance posts in the Bay of Bengal and a proposed canal across the Kra peninsula in Thailand (Kaplan 2009, 22).  These facilities greatly enhance the ability of the PLA Navy to operate further afield and indicate a shift in strategic thought towards engagements farther from the Chinese coastal areas.

These technological advances in naval strength have been mirrored by increasingly aggressive actions by Chinese ships off the coasts of Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.  There have also been incidents of concern in which the Chinese navy has acted aggressively towards American forces.  The most glaring was the harassment of the USNS Impeccable in March 2009.  In this incident an unarmed navy ship involved in routine operations in the South China Sea was harassed by Chinese ships.  One of the ships came so close that the USS Impeccable was required to alter its course and defend itself with an on-board fire hose.  In the course of the altercation, Chinese sailors were also seen using grappling hooks in an attempt to disrupt the sonar equipment the Impeccable was trailing (Shanker & Mazzetti A10).  The event led to a serious diplomatic row.  The U.S. protested formally, but China maintained that the Impeccable was violating international law by operating inside its exclusive economic zone (“U.S. Protests Chinese…” 2009).

The Role of the United States in Creating Peace

As important as the need to maintain a permanent naval presence in the Indian and Pacific oceans is, the United States lacks the will and the resources to maintain a conventional deterrent to Chinese aggression in the area forever.  Eventually our naval forces will be eclipsed by the nascent competition from China and India.  In fact, adopting a role as a more distant power in the future would probably be to the United States’ advantage.  As Robert Kaplan wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2009, “The more the United States becomes a maritime hegemon, as opposed to a land-based one, the less threatening it will seem to others” (18).  This strategy of maintaining a role at sea rather than on land will avoid the problems of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where American forces were drawn into the middle of deeply historic, geographic conflicts. As such, it is in the American’s best interest to create a world order where American forces continue to play a significant stabilizing role from the ocean without acting as the sole guarantors of peace.

President Obama has spoken on the current U.S. position on China.  He has said that “the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations” and that the United States does not fear the growth of China.  That, “in an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game.” He also has stated that we look for an international role for China in which “its growing economy is joined by growing responsibility” (Shear 2010, 1).  This is a sensible liberal position that addresses the United States’ goal of integrating China into the international system, but it fails to address the problem of China’s rising military threat

The Defense Department has issued some general statements on necessary adaptations to the current situation.  For example the Quadrennial Defense Review of February 2010 reads:

“The United States welcomes a strong, prosperous, and successful China that plays a greater global role. The United States welcomes the positive benefits that can accrue from greater cooperation. However, lack of transparency and the nature of China’s military development and decision-making processes raise legitimate questions about its future conduct and intentions within Asia and beyond. Our relationship with China must therefore be multidimensional and undergirded by a process of enhancing confidence and reducing mistrust in a manner that reinforces mutual interests. The United States and China should sustain open channels of communication to discuss disagreements in order to manage and ultimately reduce the risks of conflict that are inherent in any relationship as broad and complex as that shared by these two nations.” (QDR, 2010, 60).

 This represents a forward-looking approach on China that acknowledges current tensions and the need for strategic deterrence while building for a future of cooperation and mutual confidence. Above all the role of the United States must be to stand up for the freedom of the seas.  The South China Sea is not Lake Michigan – it is a major international line of communication of trade.  The Spratly and Paracel Island conflict may serve as an important turning point for truly internationalizing the seas – a goal which serves all nations.

After creating a more internationalist world order on the high seas, the United States needs also to act as a neutral third party in resolving disputes in the area.  Joshua Kurlantzick, with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has written “With Asian nations still squabbling amongst themselves, many look to the United States as a neutral power broker, a role America plays around the world... the United States today [is] the “default power”: No one in the world trusts anyone else to play the global hegemon, so it still falls to Washington” (“Dazzled by Asia” 2010). The first issues the United States can tackle are the Spratly and Paracel islands disputes.  The United States can act as a credible mediator in these conflicts because of its significant naval presence in the region but lack of any territorial claims.  Now is the time to make a difference, especially as the Philippines has recently indicated warming relationships with Beijing over the South China Sea disputes and an increasing willingness to submit to multilateral solutions (San Pablo 2009, 173-189).  Creating a solution to the disputes over the Spratly and Paracel islands will also remove one of the most significant reasons the Chinese have cited in increasing their naval capabilities. 

Including China in Cooperative Endeavors

Future conflicts will be more easily navigated if the United States makes it a practice to engage China in international efforts and coalitions.  If the United States can lead the way in creating more international responses to local frictions and disputes, the chance for conflict will be greatly reduced. 

Preserving free access to international waters is an international problem and should be dealt with internationally.  A concept of a grand coalition of willing states patrolling the high seas was first proposed by now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen.  He stated: “I am convinced that nobody -- no nation today -- can go it alone, especially in the maritime domain” (Kraska & Wilson 2008, 44).  He proposed the idea of a “thousand ship navy,” in which coalition and coordination would be paramount.  As this goal of global maritime cooperation is realized, the likelihood of future naval conflict will be significantly reduced.

Already the Chinese have participated in some cooperative naval missions, the first being the anti-piracy efforts of Combined Task Force 150 off the coast of Somalia.  The latest Chinese task group dispatched to the Somalian coast required all of its crew members to have a rudimentary mastery of English and packed forks, knives and English menus to “prepare for future visits and exchanges” (Yang 2010, 1).  It appears the Chinese have set the table for the rest of the world. As James Schlesinger pointed out in a recent address at Brigham Young University, “They don’t have the forces to challenge us or our allies in the foreseeable future.  Remember the Chinese dependence on oil imports and their recognition of their own vulnerability in their own lines of supply” (Schlesinger 2010).  It is this perceived vulnerability the United States must utilize to keep the peace on the high seas.

After the Somalian problem is dealt with, the United States should pursue a coalition with more marginal states such Indonesia and Malaysia to protect the straits of Malacca.  Most of China’s energy supply flows through this vital SLOC, a fact Chinese military planners are acutely aware of.  Chinese military planning has centered around it ever since Hu Jintao broached the issue in a 2003 speech, declaring that “certain major powers, (read: The United States of America) were looking to secure control of the straits” (Storey 2009, 1).  If the straits of Malacca were managed in an environment of trust, the Chinese would cease to see the US as a threat in that area.  There is also a significant piracy issue in the South China Sea, which threatens both Japan and China.  A key cooperation could be a joint Chinese, Japanese and U.S. action to control piracy in this area of mutual concern (Funabashi 2010).

Piracy is not the only issue on which China and the United States can cooperate.  China, similar to the U.S., faces considerable threats from terrorism, as does the Philippines, India, Indonesia and other regional players.  A powerful cause with deep emotional meaning, fighting terrorism could be effective in forging regional cooperation.  Drug trafficking and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are also causes that could unite the nations of the world in policing the oceans.  The Chinese have also recently completed construction of a hospital ship, and the shared experience of disaster relief after the 2004 Tsunami provide a framework for future cooperation in disaster relief by the major powers in the region (Kurlantzick 2010).

Other opportunities for military cooperation, such as officer exchange programs or the sharing of Indian Ocean surveillance data have recently been made more complicated by the suspension of U.S.-Chinese military cooperation after the 2010 arm sales to Taiwan (Capaccio & Gienger 2010).  When this most recent storm passes however, it is essential that the United States reach out a hand to the PLA Navy.   The precedent exists for meaningful cooperation.  In 2005 and 2006, China sent military observers to exercises held by Thailand, Pakistan, Indian, the U.S. and Australia (Qi 2009, 42), and during the Cold War, there were exchanges of high level military commanders, equipment and intelligence(Yi 2006).

Strengthening Regional Alliances

This internationalization of the area is a long-term goal, which must first be preceded by a concerted effort to strengthen regional alliances to increase the United States’ ability to counter the growth in scope and technology of the PLA navy.  While preserving traditional naval force projection capabilities, the United States must work with Japan, India and other regional powers to retain a credible conventional deterrent to any Chinese belligerence.  Only with this short-term course correction will any further defusing of the situation be possible.

The United States remains committed in its security obligations towards Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, all regional players on the maritime stage.  These alliances provide important structure for regional cooperation, but have in recent years have become less vigorous.  This is not surprising, as many of the agreements are reaching their fifty year anniversaries; however, the United States must work hard to strengthen its regional commitments.  One particular worry is the decline in physical U.S. presence in allied territory.  With a drawdown in Korea and Japan, the United States faces a possible loss of force projection capabilities.  The U.S. position on the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has been particularly ineffective.  The administration’s poor communication with former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama represented a lack of understanding of the changing political climate in Japan, as well as the deep resentment many local Japanese feel over an often heavy-handed U.S. presence.  But the Okinawa situation is actually a symptom of deeper questions about the relationship between allies.  We are in urgent need of new policies that will keep Japan from sliding any further East.  Former Prime Minister Hatoyama spoke about the possibility of forming an East Asian community without the U.S. (Packard 2010, 99), and the DPJ government spoke of “rebalancing” itself between East and West, a clear indicator of Japan’s shifting ideology towards China (Funabashi 2010, 1).

Soon to be the region’s third largest naval power, India is a crucial ally in containment of any possible Chinese aggression.  As the world’s largest democracy, India’s position has become increasingly aligned with the United States after the end of the cold war.  India also faces internal opposition by Marxist rebels and terrorism, which offer opportunities for the US to help and by this cement a healthy alliance. The United States should increase military cooperation with India, and repeat war games previously held in the Bay of Bengal based on the “alliance of democracies” concept (Fujioka 2010).

Former ANZUS allies can also play a constructive role.  New Zealand effectively pulled out of the ANZUS treaty in 1986 due to concerns over nuclear powered ships or ships carrying nuclear weapons docking in New Zealand (State Department: “New Zealand” 2010).  However recent relations seem to be thawing on that front, and post 9/11 New Zealand has provided more support in the global war on terror.  Australia has participated in joint American - Japan efforts to create a network of Aegis sea-based missile interceptors that will be crucial in deterring any Chinese use of ballistic missiles (Nicholson 2009). 

The United States has conducted positive naval cooperation in the region as indicated by joint military exercises with India, Japan, Indonesia, Australia and other democratic nations, but recognizing that their role will continue to fade in future years, the United States would be wise to rely less on bilateral alliances and more on regional cooperation.  As Michael Auslin of the AEI recommends, “The U.S. could relieve such concerns in part by rethinking the traditional hub-and-spoke approach to America's alliances. There needs to be a firmer push for trilateral and quadrilateral meetings”(Auslin 2010, 7).

A Word of Caution

Many observers have noticed a recent U.S. trend to create a network of alliances, military cooperation and the development of missile defense systems in the region as the creation of a “encirclement coalition against China,” and “a NATO-like military mechanism across ‘democratic’ Asia under US command, ready to intervene in conflict over the Taiwan Strait” (Clegg 2009, 35).  Though this regional cooperation with democratic states is vital, its relentless focus on Taiwan and the blatant encirclement of China, could prove provocative to the Chinese and counterproductive in the long run (Yi 2010, 22), and may therefore prove to be a destabilizing factor in the region. A recent example was the joint US-ROK naval exercises held in the Yellow Sea, which caused considerable consternation within the Chinese military establishment and Chinese public generally. The Unites States must take care to prevent a Chinese perception of threat leading to an escalation of military deployment.


A time is coming in which the United States cannot act unilaterally as a guarantor of peace in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  But as the current dominant naval force in the area, the United States must lead the way in creating a new order on the seas that will prevent another Pacific war from erupting.  In the face of a rising naval power in China and growing uncertainty in the South China Sea, the United States must work to multilaterally resolve the conflicts over the Spratly and Paracel islands.  Involving regional allies, the United States must engage China in a mesh of mutually interested parties in the area so that everyone benefits from free and open travel. Just as Americans stand for free markets and the free flow of goods and information, it is essential that they stand up for the freedom of the seas and the freedom from China exerting regional influence over the South China Sea. 


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Full Citation for This Article: Cramer, David (2010) "Creating Peace in the South China Sea," SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCramerSouthChinaSea.html, accessed [give access date].

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