South China Sea: What’s Behind the Conflict between China and the US?
Photo Credit: AFP
By Xiaobo Liu

South China Sea: What’s Behind the Conflict between China and the US?

Dec. 05, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The maritime military security relationship between China and the United States keeps deteriorating and has fallen to a historical low in 2018. One of the most obvious manifestations is that the United States has performed increased “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPs) and overflight in the South China Sea, during which “dangerous” encounters between the maritime and air forces of the two countries turned to be uncommonly frequent. In 2018, the United States has deployed 6 warships to perform FONOPs and 28 sorties of B-52 bombers to overfly the South China Sea. The following tables list the relevant US operations in the South China Sea: the FONOPs since 2015 and some of the B-52 flights in 2018:

Table 1. FONOPs performed by US warships in the South China Sea since 2015 (Data sources: China’s Ministry of National Defense official website, CNN, Reuters)

Table 2. US B-52 bomber presence in the South China Sea in 2018 (Data sources: twitter @AircraftSpots, CNN, ABS-CBN)

On September 30, the two sides were caught in an incident during an encounter at sea, when a dangerous approach of 41 meters occurred between the US Navy’s destroyer USS Decatur (DDG-73), which was performing a FONOP within 12 nautical miles to Nanxun Reef, a reef of Nansha Islands (also known as the Spratly Islands), and the Chinese Navy destroyer Lanzhou (hull number 170), which was trying to intercept and head off the former. Many in the US military soon voiced accusations of the “unsafe” and “unprofessional” action of the Chinese side. Later, on October 4, the US military released through public media that, to display military strength, the US Pacific Fleet is preparing to carry out a series of military actions in November, including exercises involving warships, fighters, and troops to demonstrate the capability of the United States to fight potential opponents. This was intended as a warning to China.

Against the background of the growing trade friction between China and the United States, where will the China-US air and sea military security situation go? Do these dangerous interactions between the air and sea forces of the two sides indicate that the two China-US mechanisms to enhance military mutual trust signed in 2014, especially the Memorandum of Understanding on the Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters (ROB), will end up as dead letters? Is it possible that incidents like the aircraft collision on April 1, 2001 or the US-Soviet Black Sea collision in 1988 will happen again, this time between China and the United States? Or worse, will a military conflict break out between the two powers, either in the air or at sea, and even escalate to a local war?

I. At present, China-US disputes over FONOPs in the South China Sea do not involve conflicts of core interests. Neither China nor the United States should raise them to a full military confrontation.

China’s core interest in the South China Sea is to safeguard the territorial sovereignty of its islands and reefs therein. So far, China’s claim on sovereignty, rights and interests in the South China Sea, is clarified, most authoritatively and comprehensively, in the Statement of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on China’s Territorial Sovereignty and Maritime Rights and Interests in the South China Sea. Issued on July 12, 2016, the document states that China has territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea, including, inter alia:

i. China has sovereignty over Nanhai Zhudao, consisting of Dongsha Qundao, Xisha Qundao, Zhongsha Qundao and Nansha Qundao;

ii. China has internal waters, territorial sea and contiguous zone, based on Nanhai Zhudao;

iii. China has exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, based on Nanhai Zhudao;

iv. China has historic rights in the South China Sea.

President Xi Jinping also stated that “Nanhai Zhudao have been Chinese territory since ancient times.” China’s maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea are not only clarified and protected by China’s domestic legislation and policy statements, but also need to follow the basic principles of contemporary international law, with due regard to the rights of other coastal states in the South China Sea as well as those out of the region.

The core of the US advocacy of FONOPs is to maintain the basic concept of free use, especially the military use, of the ocean. According to the official statement of the United States, the passage of US warships in the South China Sea is part of its global FONOP initiative. Every year, the United States challenges the “excessive maritime claims” of more than ten countries around the world. In the sovereignty disputes over the South China Sea islands, the United States has consistently stated that it has a neutral stance and does not take sides. It has not publicly raised its objection to the stationing of Chinese troops on the existing islands and reefs. According to the official statement of the US Department of Defense, the US FONOPs mainly challenge China’s maritime claims of rights as follow:

i. The straight baseline of territorial sea set by China does not conform to the principles of international law of the sea;

ii. Innocent passage by foreign warships in China’s territorial water requires prior approval;

iii. China has the right to control security in the contiguous zone;

iv. China restricts the activities of foreign military aircraft over the exclusive economic zone;

v. China restricts foreign aircraft that do not intend to enter China’s territorial airspace to fly over the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone;

vi. China restricts foreign countries’ marine survey activities within its exclusive economic zone; and

vii. The construction of some of the Nansha Islands by China should be legally defined as “artificial islands” and therefore cannot justify China’s claim for territorial sea.

The disputes between China and the United States on FONOPs in the South China Sea are partly due to differences in understanding and interpretation of international law, as well as in home legislation and policies between the two countries. However, these disputes do not involve any US objection to China’s territorial sovereignty over the South China Sea islands, which makes its core interests as stated, but instead, show more the conflicting outlooks on the ocean between China and the United States. There is still room for negotiation between China and the United States. The United States is a traditional maritime country, and the concept of freedom of the sea is rooted in the history of national development for more than two hundred years. China is a traditional continental state, not starting to know and learn maritime rights and interests until less than half a century ago. China is still in the initial stage of building a maritime power with well-maintained balance between land and sea. Its ideology of the continental state is so deeply rooted that in its mindset, ownership of the sea as territory often weighs down the free use of the ocean as a natural passage.

Due to the increasing economic importance of strategic energy corridors and trade routes at sea, the growing defense strength and therefore enhanced national security in coastal waters, the Chinese navy is more and more moving toward the ocean to maintain overseas interests of the country. Chinese warships and military aircraft also have to steer through or overfly straits, waterways and territorial seas of other countries, and conduct military operations in EEZ and territorial seas of coastal states like itself, whatever the operation is for — training, exercise, reconnaissance, survey, shipping escort, evacuation of overseas Chinese, or combat against international crimes. Ensuring the freedom of navigation across the global oceans and straits has also risen as a vital strategic interest for China as it must maintain the freedom of navigation not only for its merchant ships, but also for its operating warships and military aircraft. China's understanding of freedom of navigation needs to change in response to the development of national interests. The current divergences between China and the United States on FONOPs and maritime military activities reflect the former’s policy adjustment in transition from a continental country into one with coordinated land-sea priority. Such divergences will not escalate to conflict over core interests between the two countries. Instead, with the development and establishment of an ocean-oriented outlook in China, the two countries will find more convergences and commonalities in their ocean views and maritime interests.

A typical case of national practice that changed the attitude toward FONOPs comes from the former Soviet Union, which had opposed innocent passage of warships in its territorial sea since its founding. At the first United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea in 1958, the Soviet Union still required foreign warships transiting through its territorial sea to apply for permission 30 days in advance. Later, with the rapid development of the Soviet Navy, Soviet warships began to operate worldwide and compete with the US Navy, gradually leading to a changed position on freedom of navigation. However, in the 1982 Soviet State Border Law promulgated by the Soviet Union, it was stipulated that foreign warships could pass through certain passages in the Soviet territorial sea of the Baltic Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan, retaining restrictions on innocent passage of warships. The United States then began performing FONOPs in the Soviet territorial sea of the Black Sea until the famous “Black Sea bumping incident” occurred in February 1988 — a Soviet warship slammed into a US warship performing a FONOP. Unexpectedly, the outcome of the negotiation after the incident turned out to be a complete reversal. On September 23, 1989, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Uniform Interpretation of Rules of International Law Governing Innocent Passage which clearly stated: “All ships, including warships, regardless of cargo, armament or means of propulsion, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea in accordance with international law, for which neither prior notification nor authorization is required.” Then the US navy stopped FONOPs in the Soviet territorial sea. To meet their own interests, the Soviet Union finally changed its policy on the issue of innocent passage by warships in its territorial sea. Therefore, the divergences between countries on freedom of navigation are not irreconcilable conflict over core interests.

As consensus and divergences coexist between China and the United States on the issue of freedom of navigation, what China opposes are mainly unilateral FONOPs performed by US military aircraft and warships which challenge China’s domestic legislation and which attempt to force China to accept its claims. There is still room for China and the United States to resolve the issue of FONOPs in the South China Sea through dialogue and negotiation, while irrational military means should never be a solution to resort to.

II. It is not China’s goal to gain control of the entire South China Sea: it seems tempting but it is not in China’s interest.

The core of the South China Sea issue is the territorial disputes over islands and reefs between China and its neighbors, and thereof arises the disputes over jurisdiction rights of waters in the South China Sea. In addition, China and its neighboring countries in the South China Sea have common interests in maintaining the openness of channels in the South China Sea and developing and sustaining resources in the region. The view that China’s strategic goal is to gain control of the entire South China Sea and turn it into China’s internal water is a misjudgment of China’s intentions.

The South China Sea is a common strategic channel connecting China and East Asian countries with the Indian Ocean, and therefore offering an access to farther destinations in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The sea is a strategic energy corridor that ensures an economic lifeline for East Asian countries. But it makes just one section of the vital Sea Lines of Communication as a whole. The route connecting the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean is dotted by a series of waterways such as the Singapore Strait, the Strait of Malacca, the Sunda Strait, and the Lombok Strait. These waterways are located in the territorial seas and the archipelagic waters of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. After passing through these straits, this strategic route goes across the vast Indian Ocean and enters the Strait of Hormuz before it reaches the Persian Gulf, and arrives in Europe after transiting through the Gulf of Aden, Bab el-Mandeb, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. China has never formulated any military strategy to control such a vast ocean and so many waterways that are mostly located in the sovereign waters of coastal states. Facing such a long international waterway, taking control of some of the sea areas (such as the South China Sea and the waters within the first island chain) makes no sense, which leads nowhere in gaining control of the entire waterway. Even if China can win a local war against the United States within the first island chain, completely drive the US military power out of the South China Sea, and therefore gain full control of the South China Sea, the latter still has the advantages to blockade the main waterways connecting South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and Europe. It will be difficult for China to break through and hold the situation for a long time. This strategic channel will be cut off anyway, and that will be fatal for China’s economic development.

As the current conflicts of interest between China and the United States have not escalated to a stage that warrants a war, avoiding air and sea crises and armed conflict should remain as the primary strategic and operational goal for both sides.

Therefore, on the issue of strategic channel security, China must give up the old concept of sea power that advocates the seizure of ocean control by use of force, and adopt a new concept of ocean security highlighting international cooperation. It is impossible for China to rely on military power to gain exclusive control of strategic channels. It must rely on international cooperation to jointly safeguard strategic channel security. This includes cooperation not only between China and the coastal states of the South China Sea, but also between China and maritime powers outside of the region, for example the United States. To obtain completely exclusive control of the South China Sea is neither a strategic intention nor is it in the interest of China. In a long historical period in the future, China will remain as a country with coordinated land-sea priorities. The ocean is an important domain for China’s economic development, while land affairs stay vital due to their great relevance to China’s survival and development. China finds no cultural foundation, demand, or strength to develop a concept of sea power that pursues ocean control globally.

China’s recent military building, especially its island construction since 2015 in the South China Sea, is another important reason for the United States to believe that China seeks to control the South China Sea. But building the military capacity of islands and reefs is not the same as seeking sea area control. The meaning of a country’s “militarization” on its territory lies in the fact that it is a process of preparing the country for conflict or war and therefore is an inherent defense right of a sovereign state. The interpretation of China’s military building on islands and reefs in the South China Sea as a use of force by China to threaten neighboring countries in fact covers up the legitimacy of militarization in an unperceivable way. Ever since China recovered the Xisha Islands (also known as the Paracel Islands) and the Nansha Islands in 1946, it has stationed soldiers on the islands of the South China Sea and deployed weapons and equipment. Since the 1970s, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia have encroached more than 40 islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands. As the sovereign state, China has carried out corresponding island reef construction and military deployment, naturally, in order to get ready for potential conflicts or wars. It is understandable and there is nothing to hide. China’s current South China Sea policy is to resolve disputes through peaceful negotiation and not to take initiative to resolve the issue by use of force. This is not just an official account catering to foreign audiences, but rather a rational choice of China based on the need to maintain the security environment of the South China Sea, which is closely relevant to its own development interests. Therefore, China’s military construction on its islands in the South China Sea has natural legitimacy and does not mean that China is pursuing a strategic goal to put the South China Sea under its control.

III. The Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters are still important as avoiding conflict remains as the primary goal.

As both China and the United States are nuclear powers, any incident like collisions at sea or in the air, or small friction, may go out of control and spark local armed conflict or even nuclear war. That will be catastrophic to both countries. In spite of divergences on ocean law and policy as well as the settlement of disputes in the South China Sea, China and the United States have reached consensus on how to control the actions of their air and sea forces in peacetime. Both sides have sensibly realized that the reoccurrence of collision incidents similar to that of April 1, 2001 will drag the two countries into unpredictable risks. In November 2014, China’s Ministry of National Defense and the US Department of Defense signed the two measures to enhance military mutual trust. In particular, the ROB with its annexes signed in 2015, constitute basic rules of conduct for peacetime encounters between the air and sea forces of the two countries. When dangerous incidents occur between the air and sea forces of both sides, the strict implementation of these rules is an effective way to avoid escalating the crises, to prevent the outbreak of armed conflict, and to avoid any serious damage to the common interests of China and the United States.

The dangerous approach between Chinese and US warships on September 30 has been ascribed to the US FONOP performed within 12 nautical miles of Chinese island. However, at the technical level, it is highly probable that one side violated relevant ROB rules on keeping safe separation, which include but not limited to provisions as follow:

Annex II, Section I: Military vessels that encounter each other at sea are to abide by the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea,1972 and the Collision Regulations (COLREGs) contained therein and implement in good faith the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) developed and adopted by the Western Pacific Naval Symposium.

Section IV: General Navigation Safety Rules: i. When military vessels of either Side encounter each other at sea, they are to maintain a safe distance to avoid the risk of collision.

While the incident indeed happened, it did not mean that the situation would slip out of control. The ROB also includes provisions for crisis management: “The Section VI, iv. Rules for Emergency On-Scene Coordination, 3. For situations occurring at sea, such as a dangerous approach and collision, or other actions that could lead to misperception and miscalculation, both Sides should take active measures to reduce tension and communicate with each other, conduct professional assessment, and explore improvement measures through military and diplomatic channels and the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) mechanism.” Therefore, there were crisis management channels and means ready at hand for the two sides to resolve the incident.

On October 4, the US media disclosed that the US military would make big moves in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait in November. On October 16, the US Navy oceanographic research vessel the USNS Thomas G. Thompson (T-AGOR-9) docked in Taiwan. On October 22, the USS Antitham (CG-54) and the USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) sailed through the Taiwan Strait. Could these be the prelude to the “big move”? What subsequent actions will the US military take? As is known from relevant articles of US military scholars and the US practice in global FONOPs, the United States may conduct actions that are not directly relevant to the passage in China’s territorial sea of islands and reefs in the South China Sea, such as using weapons in exercises, collecting intelligence, launching and recovering aircraft, operating UAVs and UUVs, conducting research or surveys, or interfering with communications. Also, the US military may sail and fly within 12 nautical miles of the Nansha Islands and reefs occupied by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, or increase the presence or activity of its warships and aircraft beyond 12 nautical miles of the Nansha Islands. Examining each of these options, one can easily find that these moves will do no more than strengthen the US claims on freedom of navigation. What they will yield, more likely, are rounds of media hype rather than actual damage to China’s sovereignty — its core interest in the South China Sea.


The military interaction between China and the United States in the South China Sea is not merely a bilateral issue. It also has an important impact on the relations between China and ASEAN, as well as between China and the Asia-Pacific countries. To rush into war is not in China’s interest, and nor should it be China’s policy option. On April 17, US Admiral Philip Scot Davidson said at the Senate hearing that nominated him as the Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command: “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” Of course, he is not over-pessimistic about the capability of the US military. One may perceive from Admiral Davidson’s remarks that the US military still has the ability to control the South China Sea during wartime, which reflects objectively the current superiority of US military strength over China. According to the data of Jane’s Information Group in October 2018, the US Navy has 116 oceanic surface combatants with a total displacement of 1.93 million tons, while the Chinese Navy has only 54, totaling 0.35 million tons in displacement. The number of medium and long-range shipborne missiles of US navy is 6.5 times of the Chinese Navy. In terms of aviation strength, the US Navy and Marine Corps are equipped with 4,185 aircraft of various types, while the Chinese Navy has only 574. The US military strength is far superior in number to that of the People’s Liberation Army, not to mention the disparities in performance of ships and aircraft. China cannot be unrealistically optimistic. The only way to make rational policy decisions is to recognize the gap in overall military strength between China and the United States. Currently, the economic and trade friction between China and the United States has been heating up, and an all-out trade war seems to be on the verge of breaking out. In this situation, does China need to open up a new battlefield in the domain of maritime security? Has the conflict of interest in maritime security between China and the United States reached the state of fire and water?

The comprehensive analysis of the perceptions of interests of China and US and their divergences on the South China Sea issue, especially their assessments of the freedom of navigation dispute, their conflicts over strategic interests, and the interaction of their air and sea forces, do not lead us to the conclusion that military conflict between China and the United States is inevitable. Military relations are the bottom line of China-US relations. Also, they are relatively independent, without inevitable connection with economic and trade ties. As the current conflicts of interest between China and the United States have not escalated to a stage that warrants a war, avoiding air and sea crises and armed conflict should remain as the primary strategic and operational goal for both sides.

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