China, the US and the South China Sea: What’s Going On?
By Mark J. Valencia

China, the US and the South China Sea: What’s Going On?

May. 16, 2016  |     |  0 comments

In the run-up to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) decision regarding the Philippines/China dispute in the South China Sea, China has been “reclaiming,” building on and — the US charges — “militarizing” unoccupied, and in some cases, originally submerged features. The US has severely criticized these actions. This contretemps has led to a flurry of what appear to be tit-for-tat actions and reactions. This and the relatively muffled rhetoric on both sides have led to considerable speculation as to what is going on behind the scenes.

China’s next “advance” was expected to be focused on Scarborough Shoal. China seized control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 after a standoff between the two and an unsuccessful US effort to broker a temporary solution.  Earlier this year, US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson expressed concern that those features might be a “next possible area of reclamation,”1 citing Chinese “survey” activity there. Moreover, Chinese military commentators reportedly said China plans to make it into a fortress.

But Scarborough Shoal is not just another rock or reef.  It has become a “red line” of sorts. According to an article by Jane Perlez in the New York Times, US President Barack Obama warned China’s President Xi Jinping, during their recent meeting in Washington, not to undertake construction on Scarborough Shoal or declare an air defense identification zone over the disputed Spratlys. In April, the US Pacific Air Force command announced that it had begun a series of flights by ground attack aircraft and special forces helicopters “in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal.”2 However US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter declined to confirm this before Congress.3 A senior US official later allowed in general that Washington was trying to “lower the temperature” regarding Scarborough Shoal. The use of American assault assets could be interpreted as a demonstration of Washington’s intent and ability to prevent Chinese attempts to begin dredging or construction there. Indeed, preventing Chinese construction on Scarborough Shoal is now seen by some analysts as a litmus test of US resolve.

The US appears to have upped the ante in what has become a contest of wills with China. It deployed the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier strike group to the South China Sea. This came on the heels of a warning from Carter of “specific consequences” for China’s “specific actions.” This show of force was preceded by US “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) by guided missile destroyers and over flights by nuclear capable B52 bombers. Carter then postponed a visit to China,4 and the Stennis carrier strike group returned to the South China Sea,5 where it was very publicly visited by Carter and his Philippine counterpart, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin6. Then, in spite of Carter and other US leaders repeatedly committing7 to “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,”8 the US canceled a planned FONOP near Mischief Reef9.

However, on 10 May the guided missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence sailed within 12 nm of the disputed Fiery Cross Reef where China has built a harbor and airstrip which can and has been used by its military. Fiery Cross Reef is occupied by China and claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. All but the Philippines require prior notification for warships to enter their territorial sea. More than a demonstration of the US position, this was a slap in the face to the PLA leadership as the Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission General Fan Changlong had recently visited the island generating considerable international and domestic publicity. The Lawrence FONOP prompted China to scramble fighter jets and dispatch warships to monitor and warn off the US vessel. China denounced the patrol as “illegal” and stated that “this action by the US side threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, endangered the staff and facilities on the reef, and damaged regional peace and stability.” Then China abruptly denied the Stennis strike group’s request for a port call in Hong Kong. This was probably a response to Carter’s use of the Stennis to symbolically assert US resolve and power in the region and the fact that the Lawrence was part of the strike group. But it is also a barometer of current China-US tension no matter how the US may try to play it down.

One hypothesis suggests that a deal has been struck in which China has been given face and space to postpone construction on Scarborough Shoal and that the US in turn postponed its next FONOP and agreed to tone down its public rhetoric.

The US FONOPs in the South China Sea are designed to challenge what the US sees as other countries’ restrictions on freedom of navigation. The previous two in this series involved the USS Lassen near China-occupied Subi Reef in October 2015 and the USS Curtis Wilbur in January 2016 near China-claimed and occupied Triton Island in the Paracels. A third FONOP was widely expected for Mischief Reef, a formerly submerged feature also claimed by the Philippines (it is situated in its claimed 200 nm Exclusive Economic Zone and on its claimed continental shelf). It is now occupied by China and has been built upon by China. But this did not happen — at least not yet.

One hypothesis suggests that a deal has been struck in which China has been given face and space to postpone construction on Scarborough Shoal and that the US in turn postponed its next FONOP and agreed to tone down its public rhetoric. A FONOP near Mischief Reef would have more potential for escalation because the US maintains that it is (or was) a low tide elevation not entitled to a territorial sea. Thus to demonstrate its position, the US would have to undertake non-innocent military operations within 12 nm of the feature like maneuvering, launching and receiving aircraft, live fire exercises intelligence collection or some other “in-your face-activities.” This could trigger a strong reaction from Beijing — and more importantly for its leadership — its nationalist citizenry. Perhaps the US will challenge a hypothetical territorial sea claim around Mischief Reef after the PCA decision that is expected to declare that the feature is not a legal rock or island and not entitled to a territorial sea. The US could then be seen as legitimately “enforcing” the PCA decision.

The publicized series of US over flights of attack warplanes near Scarborough Shoal would not seem to support the hypothesis of such a “deal.” Moreover, the innocent-passage FONOP conducted by the Lawrence does not fit this hypothesis either. So speculation is rife. What will come next in this tit-for tat “game”? The US is apparently intent on demonstrating by word and deed that it will risk confrontation with China — and even escalation — if necessary. Meanwhile China now seems to be exercising considerable tactical restraint in the face of such challenges — particularly regarding the FONOPs. But it is very doubtful any tenuous “truce” will hold. Indeed, China has stated that the latest US FONOP “only further justified China’s construction of defense facilities in the area” and would result in more Chinese air and maritime patrols.

Unfortunately, the dialectic runs much deeper than tactical one-upmanship. As the Australian analyst Hugh White has cogently argued, the US strategy in the South China Sea is failing. The US assumes that it can increase pressure on China with relative impunity until China “blinks and backs-off.” But China has so far not been cowed by US diplomatic and military warnings and shows of force and instead seems to be signaling by its actions that it too will risk a military confrontation to defend its position there. Increasingly, both see the outcome of this policy conflict as an indication of who will dominate the region. Indeed, this struggle has become a challenge to the existing US-led international order.

Next steps by the US could include a “red line” statement like that suggested by Hugh White that “it would regard any further Chinese action as a direct assault on the stability of Asia, and such an act would be met with full US force,” or a build-up of US forces in the region (which in China’s view is already ongoing). Tactically the US could deploy destroyers to physically block Chinese dredges, or it could back Manila’s sovereignty claim on the feature by publicly extending the reach of its defense treaty with the Philippines to specifically include Scarborough Shoal. Either would be risky. What if China proceeded anyway?

According to a recent Lowy Institute report by Ashley Townshend and Rory Medcalf, China appears to be strengthening “its strategic position in maritime Asia at lower levels of risk, shifting the burden of escalation to the US and its regional partners.” According to the report, “Chinese ships and aircraft are behaving more professionally during tactical encounters with foreign vessels; China is embracing maritime confidence-building measures (CBMs) to lower the risks of miscalculation and accidental conflict; and Beijing is turning to what might be termed ‘passive assertive’ forms of intimidation aimed at expanding its strategic maritime influence.” Supposedly, President Xi Jinping has instructed the PLA and the coast guard forces to be less confrontational. China has probably also realized that its assertive behavior is damaging its relations with Southeast Asian countries and driving its neighbors into the US’ arms. Nevertheless, China will likely continue what it is doing — slow, incremental salami-slicing while preparing for eventual crisis and conflict. This situation is not likely to end well.


1. Brunnstrom, D. and Shalal, A. (2016, March 19). US sees new Chinese activity around South China Sea shoal. Reuters. Retrieved from

2. A-10s complete second USPACOM Air Contingent mission. (2016, April 21). Retrieved from

3. LaGrone, S. (2016, April 28). McCain to SECDEF Carter: US South China Sea presence operations should be ‘magnified’ not ‘classified’. USNI News. Retrieved from

4. China responds to US defense secretary's cancel of China visit. (2016, April 12). Retrieved from

5. Larter, D. (2016, April 14). Carrier group returns to South China Sea amid tensions. Navy Times. Retrieved from

6. Torbati, Y. and Blanchard, B. (2016, April 15). US defense secretary visits carrier in disputed South China Sea. Reuters. Retrieved from

7. Remarks by President Obama and President Xi of the People's Republic of China in Joint Press Conference. (2015, September 25). Retrieved from

8. The Whitehouse Press Briefing (2016, February 17). Retrieved from

9. Panda, A. (2016, April 27). The US cancelled a scheduled FONOP in the South China Sea. What now? The Diplomat. Retrieved from

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *