China’s South China Sea End Game: Implications and Next Steps

China’s South China Sea End Game: Implications and Next Steps
by United States Navy Capt. (Ret.) Carl O. Schuster

China’s ongoing actions in the South China Sea belie its promises of the last five years.  Its Foreign Ministry announced in 2013 that its suppression of non-Chinese fishermen was to protect the region’s sensitive marine environment. Since then, it has ripped up 2.4 million hectares of endangered coral reefs to enlarge atolls and islets into artificial islands. More importantly, China has emplaced military facilities and garrisons on those islands just months after President Xi Jinping promised his country would not militarize those islands.  His Foreign Ministry has also promised to never use its “sovereignty” over the South China Sea to constrict anyone’s trade or use of the air space over those waters.  It is a pattern reminiscent of that seen in Europe during the 30s.  Each transgression was promised to be the last but proved simply to be a ploy to lull the international community into complacency.  China has followed a path similar to the aggressors of that era, albeit taken more patiently.  The ultimate goal, gaining control over the South China, will give Beijing a firm grip over the waters through which 25% of Japan’s and 21% of Taiwan’s currently transits.  That potential stranglehold is a concern to those two countries but it also has implications for the international rule of law and freedom of the seas.

This chart shows the percentage of the estimated $3.7 trillion of annual  mercantile trade attributed to the countries listed.  Source: Center for Strategic and International Studies,

Facing growing international opposition to its claims since the International Court denied China de jure sovereignty over the South China Sea, Beijing has initiated a two-pronged approach to gaining de facto authority. First, it has reinforced the garrisons and hardened the facilities on its artificial islands in the Spratly Archipelago and staged aircraft, missiles and naval units to them and the nearby Paracel Islands, which it seized from a collapsing South Vietnam in 1974.  However, the weapons and aircraft were withdrawn in the face of international opposition, but the message was clear; those islands can support combat aircraft and both surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles.  The radars and other sensor systems are already in place. The buildup of logistics and maintenance capabilities to support a permanent deployment probably is already underway. The calculations on when to move the forces there probably are already underway. It will be based on the expected regional and international reaction.  In the meantime, China will make further temporary deployments and within the next three years, small scale military exercises ostensibly to ensure it can defend its claims against foreign aggression.

Second, Beijing has initiated increasingly aggressive harassment against American aerial reconnaissance aircraft and naval units flying near or exercising Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in those waters, respectively. Such harassment is new only in that it is directed at the United States.  Vietnamese fishing boats and coast guard vessels have been rammed and many of the former sunk by the Chinese Coast Guard. Although the death toll from each incident doesn’t approach the numbers killed by China’s attacks on Vietnamese naval units and unarmed personnel in 1988, it does constitute a violation of international law. Yet, as is the case with the world’s environmental organizations’ blind eye to China’s depredations of the region’s marine habitat, human rights groups remain silent; essentially signaling Vietnamese, and by extension, Southeast Asian lives do not matter.  So far, China has not risked interfering with the flight of U.S. combat or transport aircraft. Nor have China’s air and naval units initiated dangerous maneuvering around other Western countries’ naval units exercising their freedom of navigation through the South China Sea.  That may change as China’s air and naval power expands in the next decade. However, Beijing will not act suddenly. It is playing the long game, moving gradually and incrementally towards its goal of controlling the South China Sea for its own benefit.

The people of the Philippines remember China’s placing of territorial markers around the islands and islets Manila claimed and the so-called fishing shelters China built on its claimed territories and Mischief Reef 25 years ago.  Those fishing shelters were hardened facilities with anti-aircraft artillery, military communications systems, and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or “People’s Militia” troops on them by the late 1990s.  The Philippine Navy and Coast Guard expended much effort patrolling its waters and removing those markers, but China seized Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal the moment fuel shortage and weather imposed a three-month hiatus in those patrols.  The lesson from that is that Beijing moves whenever its leaders think their victims’ attention is elsewhere.  Vietnam was the first victim of Chinese aggression followed by the Philippines.  Although China’s actions have been more subtle in recent years, it has established a pattern of behavior the other claimants and international community should learn.

The most important question now is what must the international community and regional countries do next.  The major powers’ FONOPS play an important role in signaling China’s aggression is unacceptable and its claims rejected.  The United States has strengthened its presence in the region and its FONOPS. U.S. units no longer claim “innocent passage” when transiting those waters; a claim that constitutes recognition of territorial sovereignty since warships only conduct innocent passage through territorial waters.  They transit freely through international waters and more importantly, can conduct military exercises, maneuvers and training in international waters. In fact, the U.S. and Japan have conducted military exercises in those waters. But, those actions represent only one dimension of the many available to pressure China and more importantly, the exercises lack involvement by the local countries most immediately threatened by Beijing’s activities.  That absence makes the international response seem more related to big power games than the defense of international principles and regional concerns.

This is not to say the individual Southeast Asian countries should challenge China or initiate unilateral South China Sea exercises of their own.  However, bi-lateral exercises and tri-lateral exercises conducted within the claimed waters of the participating countries would demonstrate Beijing’s aggression has triggered a unified regional opposition.  The political and diplomatic considerations that shape such military-to-military interactions are complex and cannot be easily or rapidly arranged.  Discussing the idea now offers the best path to starting those exercises before 2025.  It also sends a message to Beijing that its neighbors are also in it for the long game.

The economic and diplomatic components to constraining Beijing are more difficult. China’s economy continues its strong growth and its markets and trade remains a key contributor to Asian and global economic wellbeing. Isolating China economically is neither a positive goal nor an easily achievable one; at least not without serious financial costs. The American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement was a mistake but one that can be mitigated by a push to reach a series of trade deals that achieve the same results – expanded trade across the region.  Developing alternatives to China is the only way to reduce

This chart juxtaposes South China Sea and Taiwan Strait shipping routes against potential conflict zones to illustrate the potential impact of China exercising its claimed sovereignty over those waters.  Source: Multiple sources collated and analyzed by the author.

China’s economic leverage. International investors should shift their emphasis to the emerging markets in Southeast Asia and Africa. China’s property laws, particularly with respect to intellectual property, provide little protection – diminishing the prospect for a long-term return on investments there.  China’s neighbors offer such protections and also host an equally educated, hard working work force.  Strengthening those economies is the best medicine for most diplomatic ills.

Attributing China’s South China Sea policies to the region’s potential oil and gas reserves is misguided.  The desire for those resources does play a role, particularly for the other claimants, but China has a far larger strategic vision behind its actions.  Its historical claim is no more valid than Vietnam’s or the Philippines but nationalist prestige inspires the populace.  But that too is secondary to the strategic benefits of enjoying a stranglehold on East Asia’s most important trade route.  Additionally, garrisoning those islands with long-range weapons places Chinese forces in easy and immediate reach of Southeast Asian country during any future crisis.  Although the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia possess alternate trade routes, the strategic concern is as great as that of their Southeast Asian neighbors and those to the north.  After 30-years of broken promises and misleading statements, countries can place little credence on Beijing’s promises of benignly exercising that power if it gains it.  Act patiently and prudently, but start now or be ready for a painful reality ten years hence.

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