The United States and China Can Get Along in the South China Sea


Editor’s Note: This piece is adapted from a new report published by the National Bureau of Asian Research entitled “U.S.-China Relations in Strategic Domains.”


To many observers, China and the United States appear to be irreconcilably butting heads in the maritime domain, especially in the South China Sea. This was recently illustrated at the 2016 Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore when China’s representative, Admiral Sun Jianguo, the Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff, and the U.S. representative, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, provided vastly different portrayals of what was needed to promote stability and security in the South China Sea. Differences are also likely to surface in the upcoming weeks as The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration renders its verdict on the case between China and the Philippines. Despite these recent differences between the two countries, it may come as a surprise to learn that the maritime arena holds the most promise for China and the United States to cooperate.

Compared to other strategic domains in which the two major powers interact, such as space and cyber, both countries are well aware of the specifics of their respective national maritime interests. While this clarifies areas of agreement and disagreement, the enormous interests involved and the potential for the two powers to confound one another make the task of arriving at cooperative measures daunting.

China and the United States share interests in the principle of freedom of navigation (FON). Although they disagree over what FON entails, it offers both sides tangible benefits from maritime-related economies, good order and stability at sea, and the use of the sea to foster and protect national security interests. This is not to deny the notable differences in their respective maritime priorities.

For the United States, the entire international trading and economic order is dependent on a secure maritime domain.  Additionally, the ocean serves as both an initial barrier to threats to the homeland and as a highway for the United States to project power abroad. Finally, because the Washington sees the prevention of regional hegemons as vital to its own national security interests, the United States is able to take action to balance that emerging threat or, if necessary, defeat it through a secure maritime domain.

China’s interests in the maritime domain center on safeguarding national unity and territorial integrity, defending maritime rights and benefits, and protecting China’s rapidly expanding overseas interests which include trade to and from China and access to needed natural resources. During wartime, China also wants to be able to deny or deter other powers’ ability to pose either threats within its strategic maritime zones or layers of Chinese defenses that are defined by the first and second island chains.

Chinese and U.S. perspectives diverge when it comes to how the two countries define their respective national interests, what they believe to be appropriate means of displaying good and bad intentions, how the two sides view the sea, and how they interpret international law and the protection of maritime sovereignty.

China and the United States have fundamentally different philosophies about the nature and meaning of the sea. Historically for modern China, the sea is first and foremost a means of access by enemies to threaten and humiliate the country. In contrast, the United States views the sea as a potential barrier to foreign threats and simultaneously a means for the United States to push out and advance its own interests.

This explains the tension over U.S. Navy surveillance and reconnaissance operations (SRO). The United States regards as its right the ability to fly surveillance aircraft or sail surveillance ships within China’s exclusive economic zone but outside China’s territorial waters and contiguous zone. China, however, sees U.S. SROs as an affront to Chinese sovereignty, intrusive in nature, and potentially threatening to China’s security.

Complicating this divergence of interests and perspectives is the security dilemma involved when a hegemon is confronted by a rising challenger — the so-called Thucydides Trap. An additional complication is the vexing fact that all the present hot spots or potential conflict scenarios between the two countries reside in the maritime domain.

There remains the possibility that China and the United States could tangle with each other over a crisis emerging from a Taiwan, a South China Sea, or an East China Sea scenario. Nevertheless, there are enough overlapping interests in the maritime domain to warrant serious thought about deepening and strengthening cooperative programs already in existence. The convergence of interests is substantial enough that new programs that can foster habits of cooperation and reduce tensions deserve consideration.

During President Obama’s visit to China in November 2014, the two sides signed memoranda of understanding on encounters at sea. The annex on air-to-air encounters was signed during President Xi’s state visit to the United States in September 2015. Now both sides should ensure that all parties adhere to the agreements. They could even consider conducting joint or separate training sessions for sailors and pilots from both sides. The United States and China should build on existing cooperative activities between their respective coast guards, while sustaining and, if possible, extending cooperation on anti-pollution measures, ocean observation, marine scientific research, and prevention of marine hazards.

Moreover, the two powers could expand on the military-to-military cooperation that has taken place within the maritime domain over the past few years. In particular, the United States should consider inviting China to exercises such as the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise that it conducts annually with Southeast Asian militaries. China and the United States should also work to establish a working group at ASEAN to discuss maritime security cooperation and dialogue. Cementing these cooperation efforts would ensure that although Chinese and American maritime interests may vary, the joint interest in preserving stability remains paramount.


Christopher Yung is the Donald Bren Chair of Non-Western Strategic Thought at the U.S. Marine Corps University. Wang Dong is an Associate Professor in the School of International Studies and Deputy Executive Director of the Institute for China-U.S. People to People Exchange at Peking University.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Peter D. Lawlor.