South China Sea: How China Should Address the US-China Dispute
The USS Spruance (DDG 111). (Photo: US Navy)
By Yu Fu

South China Sea: How China Should Address the US-China Dispute

Mar. 08, 2019  |     |  2 comments

The South China Sea has drawn much attention in recent years. The US Navy regularly conducts “freedom-of-navigation operations” by sending warships and aircraft around the disputed waters to safeguard the right to travel through “international waters and airspace”. Despite intense protests from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, two US guided-missile destroyers USS Spruance (DDG 111) and USS Preble (DDG 88) sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef (an artificial islands built up by China) on February 11, 2019, “to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law”. Together with the increasing involvement of US’ allies like the UK, South Korea, Japan in the area, China is put under more pressure.


The US does have reasons for their frequent navigation operations. The obvious reason is the conflict between the principle of free navigation claimed by the US and the sovereignty and security interests in South China Sea claimed by China. Based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the US declared it is justified for their armies to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, including the South China Sea and other places around the world. China claimed about 80 percent of the South China Sea on the basis of the 1947 map and so-called “nine-dash line” shown on the map. Yang Jiechi, Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, repeatedly declare that China firmly oppose any activity that undermines China’s sovereignty and security interests under the pretext of freedom of navigation and overflight. There is no generally accepted standard to smooth the clash, especially after China rejected the arbitration tribunal ruling which totally invalidated its territorial claims in the South China Sea.


However, the underlying cause of the South China Sea dispute between the US and China is about dominance in Asia-Pacific and maintenance of the current world order. One influential factor is natural resources in the South China Sea, which will definitely accelerate the rise of China if they are included in China’s resource storage. In order to decrease its reliance on highly polluting coal, China is pushing ahead with efforts to boost its natural gas consumption, leading to an increase of 16.6 percent of natural gas consumption in 2018. The need is supposed to rise continuously. In proved and probable reserves, US’ Energy Information Administration estimates the South China Sea contains approximately 11 billion barrels of oil which is believed to be enough to replace China’s crude oil imports for 5 years, and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas which is enough to replace China’s natural gas imports for 102 years. Besides, the South China Sea extends from China to Southeast Asia, making it one of the most important sea routes connecting Western Europe, the Middle East and East Asia as well as a crucial strategic passage between Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean.


Also, the “ideology output” of China backed by its growing military prowess is much more noticeable for the US. As a commander of US Indo-Pacific Command said, “Through fear and coercion, Beijing is working to expand its form of ideology in order to bend, break and replace the existing rules-based international order”. The US believes China’s territorial and economic influence in the South China Sea is considered as steps to create a China-led new order with Chinese characteristics, which will break the stability and peace in the Indo-Pacific and thus turn into a bigger long-term threat than North Korea.


Sino-American confrontations showed that the South China Sea dispute can be used as leverage to force China to make concessions. In 2009, after the launch of the “Asia-Pacific rebalancing” strategy, the United States has shown its “strong involvement” in the South China Sea issue. Although the Trump administration has shown a certain degree of strategic contraction, in terms of diplomatic practices, the South China Sea issue is still a powerful weight for the US to balance China. In the case of the Sino-US trade war, after the detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, Chinese enterprises purchased 113 tons of soybeans from the United States, demonstrating the effect of putting pressure on China. Therefore, the pressure China faced from the South China Sea issue is likely to grow stronger in the near future.

Observers are quite clear that the South China Sea dispute cannot be resolved through a simple territorial demarcation. They are waiting to see if China will put forward feasible plans to calm the storm.

The South China Sea dispute is difficult or even impossible to be completely settled based on current international laws and political and economic situations. No states including China will gain the full sovereignty of South China Sea in the short run. It will be much more practical if China puts more efforts into going along with the status quo. 


Firstly, China should fully consider the rights and interests of countries in Southeast Asia, especially those which are directly involved in the South China Sea issue, increase its emphasis on military investment in the Asia-Pacific region, attach more importance on military cooperation with certain countries, and assume more security responsibilities in Asia-Pacific.


The South China Sea issue concerns first the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, other Southeast Asian countries, and then the United States. Since Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte took office, the friendly exchanges between China and the Philippines and the several confrontations between the United States and the Philippines have shown that the Philippines takes its fundamental interests, rather than the traditional alliance, as the primary criterion for its foreign policy decisions.


Combined with Trump’s current tepid attitude towards traditional US allies, the bond between the US and its allies is not impregnable. At the same time, US allies in Southeast Asia cannot completely sever their ties with the US, and US military presence in the Pacific Ocean is still a much-needed guarantee for many small countries. Therefore, to keep abreast of the developments in the South China Sea issue, China should increase military cooperation with countries involved. In 2018, China’s support to the Philippines in its counter-terrorism operations on several occasions has gained positive recognition.


It is quite clear that suspending disputes and pursuing common development is the main theme at present and the most favorable choice in the short term. With the development of modern science and formation of “global village” brought by globalization, the significance of certain key factors in traditional politics such as strategic buffer and territorial sovereignty has changed and should be analyzed in specific situations.


As far as the South China Sea issue is concerned, there are two key points for China: one is the uncompromising diplomatic attitude in defending Chinese territorial sovereignty; the other is the actual exploitation and utilization of resources in the South China Sea area. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the Philippines in November 2018, Duterte and Xi held talks and signed dozens of cooperation agreements which involved cooperation on oil and gas development in the disputed South China Sea. This event should be marked as a real advancement in the South China Sea dispute.


China should also use the signing the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) as an opportunity to demonstrate its willingness to promote common development with Southeast Asian countries. In August 2018, China and ASEAN countries reached an agreement on a single draft text of the COC consultation. Two months later, China and ASEAN successfully held their first joint maritime exercise. In November, Xi said negotiations on the code could be concluded in three years and promised that any differences would be dealt with peacefully.


Observers are quite clear that the South China Sea dispute cannot be resolved through a simple territorial demarcation. They are waiting to see if China will put forward feasible plans to calm the storm. Cooperation should be stressed in China’s responses. The current COC framework reflects the negotiation result between China and ten ASEAN members. Later consultation of the code may actually give more countries the opportunity to participate in the South China Sea disputes. One option is thus to maintain good relationship with Southeast Asian countries, no matter if the countries are directly involved in the dispute or not. China should also balance disparate voices during the consultation.


2 Comments To This Article

  • FourChan

    on Mar 12, 2019 at 03:30 AM - Reply


    Have you ever been on a Chinese naval ship and seen how they are run? You might learn something about inefficiency. But please do check it out for yourself.

  • FourChan

    on Mar 12, 2019 at 07:42 AM - Reply

    2 Please note this.

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