It is High Time to Outmaneuver Beijing in the South China Sea

December 28, 2016

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Editor’s Note: This article is based in part on the author’s recent report for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Countering China’s Adventurism in the South China Sea: Strategy Options for the Trump Administration.


The policy of the United States and its close allies in the South China Sea has failed. Repeated statements of limited interest accompanied by occasional ship and aircraft passages have failed to prevent Beijing’s program of island creation, nor have they meaningfully forestalled China’s quest for military dominance in the region.

In seeking to minimize the risk of confrontation at every step, the United States and its allies have effectively ceded control of a highly strategic region and presided over a process of incremental capitulation. Bad precedents have been set, and poor messages have been transmitted to the global community. In parts of the Western Pacific, the allies are in danger of losing their long-held status as the security partners of choice.

Why have Washington and other allied capitals been so flat-footed? Why has it taken so long to develop an effective counter-strategy to Beijing’s island creation and militarization in the South China Sea?

Part of the reason is the way that China has asserted its sovereignty over some 80 percent of this strategic waterway. The South China Sea is a stretch of water that carries more than half of the world’s merchant tonnage and serves as an important transit route for the militaries of the United States and many of its allies and friends. During the last five years, Beijing’s footprint has expanded markedly with the dredging-up of new islands and the construction of facilities for surveillance, anti-air, anti-shipping, and strike forces. Beijing’s campaign has been cleverly conducted via a succession of modest incremental steps, each of which has fallen below the threshold that would trigger a forceful Western response. As a result, Beijing now has significant facilities on 12 islands in the South China Sea and operates by far the largest military, coastguard, and maritime militia presence in the region.

Amongst the military capabilities that the Chinese appear to be installing on these artificial islands are surveillance and intelligence gathering facilities, long-range anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile installations, and numerous missile and gun point-defense systems. Three of the islands in the Spratly group, towards of the middle of the South China Sea, now possess 10,000 foot airfields that are more than adequate to handle Boeing 747 operations. Hardened revetments to house 24 fighter-bomber aircraft are nearing completion on these three islands together with what appears to be extensive maintenance and storage facilities for fuel and other supplies. Aircraft operating from these facilities could range as far as the Andaman Sea, Northern Australia, and Guam.

These newly created islands also appear to have capacities to house, as well as operate at short notice, significant numbers of short-and medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles with capabilities to strike both land-based targets and ships at sea as far away as the Sulu Sea in the Philippines and Singapore and Malaysia to the south.

Port facilities have also been built on these islands capable of refuelling and replenishing significant numbers of naval, coastguard, and maritime militia vessels. In addition, these islands appear to have the potential to support an underwater acoustic surveillance network across the South China Sea that would significantly enhance China’s capabilities to prosecute operations against allied submarines in the theater.

Because these three primary islands are not very small, there is space to disperse most deployed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) assets in a crisis and complicate targeting by allied forces. Fiery Cross Reef is now about the size of a mainland fighter base. Subi Reef is about 50 percent larger and roughly comparable in area to Pearl Harbor Naval Base. Mischief Reef is substantially larger again and would barely fit within the boundaries of the District of Columbia.  In consequence, China appears well on the way to converting the South China Sea into something approaching a heavily defended internal waterway.

At present, innocent passage, especially by commercial vessels, is being respected. However, Beijing is making clear that the terms and conditions of foreign activity, even by other littoral states, will be determined and enforced by China. Relevant Chinese authorities have signalled that Beijing is considering the declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the entire South China Sea.  Military facilities now nearing completion will permit Chinese forces to enforce any such declaration with fighter intercepts of non-complying aircraft.

Although most international observers had few doubts that many of China’s actions in the South China Sea were serious breaches of international law, the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration for UNCLOS in July 2016 made the extent of Beijing’s transgressions clear. It concluded unanimously that there was no legal basis for China’s claim of historic rights to the sea areas and artificial islands falling within the nine-dash line claimed by Beijing.

When confronted by China’s territorial and military expansion in the South China Sea, allied leaders have almost always responded by repeating a standard mantra:  We have a strong interest in free sea and air passage, we have no national claims to territories in the area, and we call on all parties to exercise restraint and resolve competing claims in accordance with international law. In token support of these interests, allied ships and aircraft have periodically transited the region, though they have rarely challenged China’s territorial claims directly. This response has clearly failed to deter Beijing’s territorial expansion.

Why has the approach of the United States and its close allies been so timid and ineffectual?  There have been several factors at play.

First, many in Washington and in other allied capitals have viewed the problems in the South China Sea as unwelcome distractions of little consequence that are best ignored. Some policymakers and commentators have argued that there is little sense in risking a major power confrontation over a “few scattered rocks” in a far distant theater.

Second, the level of importance accorded to the strategic future of the South China Sea varies greatly between allied and partner capitals. The general view in Washington is that the South China Sea is important but not vital. It is simply one of many troubled areas with which the United States must deal. In Tokyo, Seoul, and Canberra, the South China Sea is far more important because of its intrinsic strategic value and critical importance to their close partners who are maritime members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). For the littoral states of the South China Sea, the strategic balance and effective sovereignty of the region is critical for their future security and economic well-being. These differences in priority between the Western Pacific allies and their friends are placing strains on long-standing security relationships.

A third serious constraint has been imposed by the hub-and-spokes alliance model that has been in place in the Western Pacific since the 1950s. Cross-alliance (outer wheel) cooperation and combined security planning is not well-developed amongst the Western Pacific allies. While some progress has been made in recent years in strengthening operational coordination between Japan, Australia, South Korea and some partner countries in Southeast Asia, it is still limited and much of it is not routine. Washington has certainly encouraged closer cross-alliance cooperation but and it has a long way to go to approach the type of combined security planning that is habitual in Europe.  . In consequence, timely, efficient, and effective alliance cooperation in response to Beijing’s operations in the South China Sea has not been straightforward.

Fourth, most citizens, almost all journalists, and many congressional and parliamentary representatives are poorly informed about Chinese operations in the South China Sea and, indeed, Beijing’s broader strategic behavior during the last decade. The mainstream media and Western government agencies have done a poor job of displaying the reality of what has been happening and explaining the implications.

Fifth, the development of an effective response to China’s creeping incrementalism in the South China Sea has been intrinsically difficult. Beijing has employed a very sophisticated strategy and operational concept that could be implemented without challenging U.S. alliance commitments or directly confronting American or allied forces. Moreover, Western leaders have faced numerous political and bureaucratic distractions, and it has been hard to maintain their attention on this theater.

Sixth, many Western business people and policymakers have wished to avoid any measure that could disturb their business and broader economic relationships with China. These concerns have been most apparent in the Western Pacific allies, as well as in American and other corporations that have invested heavily in developing close ties with Chinese enterprises. Chinese agencies have been active in fostering these worries, propagating false dilemmas, and exaggerating the potential consequences for regional economies of any actions taken to confront China’s assertiveness.

The success of Beijing’s information operations in Western countries is a seventh factor in accounting for the Western allies’ timidity over Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. These operations have been assisted by the Chinese acquisition of media enterprises in Western countries as well as the courting of key decision-makers, journalists, and academics through fully paid visits to China; the contribution of substantial funds to political parties; the establishment of pro-Beijing associations of many types, including Confucius Institutes in universities; the regular insertion of Chinese produced supplements in metropolitan newspapers; and the organization of periodic “patriotic” demonstrations, concerts, and other events by Chinese embassies, consulates, and other pro-Beijing entities. Cyber and intelligence operations have been used to reinforce key messages, recruit Chinese intelligence agents and “agents of influence,” and to intimidate, coerce, and deter allied counter-actions.

An eighth contributing factor is cultural. Western electorates appear to be more fearful of triggering confrontation and the escalation of an argument than their Chinese counterparts. Hugh White, a well-known observer of the region’s affairs, has even argued that the United States should not confront China’s expansionism unless its leaders are willing to “convince a majority of Americans that America should and would be willing to fight a nuclear war to preserve U.S. leadership in Asia.” Statements such as this reflect flawed assessments of relative power, dubious assumptions about Beijing’s preparedness to use nuclear weapons against the United States, and a failure to consider the range of possible allied strategies and the very large menu of non-military options available to the allies to curb China’s adventurism.

One of the core problems with the approach of the U.S., Japanese, and Australian governments has been their serious misstatement of alliance interests. These allies certainly have strong interests in freedom of air and sea navigation and in seeing the competing claims in the region resolved peacefully in accordance with international law. However, the most powerful interests of the allies really extend beyond these limited, largely tactical, goals.

In reality, the first key interest of the allies is ensuring that China does not dominate the South China Sea to the extent that it can unilaterally determine the regional order and dictate the level of sovereignty to be enjoyed by the littoral states. A second key interest of the allies is limiting the potential for China’s acquisitive actions in the South China Sea to set a precedent for further, more aggressive illegal actions by Beijing in either the short or the long term. A third key allied interest is ensuring that China’s serious breaches of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, its dismissal of the findings of the Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and its direct challenge to  international  law are not repeated.

In pursuit of these more substantive interests, the allied leaders need to choose a clear strategic concept to drive a counter-campaign. The most obvious options are to select a strategy of denial, a strategy of cost imposition, a strategy that attacks China’s strategy, or a strategy that undermines the leadership in Beijing. No matter what strategic concept is selected, an essential foundation should be a stronger and more convincing allied military posture in the Western Pacific.

Given Beijing’s actions during the last five years, there is a need to progress beyond the so-called “pivot” and “rebalancing” to a more thoroughgoing military engagement with the region that might be called the Regional Security Partnership Program. The primary goals of such a program would be to demonstrate continuing allied military superiority in the theater, deter further Chinese adventurism, and reinforce the confidence of regional allies and partners in the reliability of their Western partners so that they feel able to staunchly resist any attempted Chinese coercion.

The most effective allied strategy will be innovative and asymmetric. Just because Beijing has focused its most assertive actions in the South China and East China Seas in recent years using various forms of military, coast guard, maritime militia, and political warfare assets, it does not mean that the allies should counter by focusing all of their efforts in those theaters and employing those same modes. To the contrary, the most effective allied options are likely to focus on applying several types of pressure against the Chinese leadership’s primary weaknesses in whatever theater that is appropriate.

Such campaigns should contain a carefully calibrated mix of measures that can be sustained over an extended period. Candidate measures will likely extend well beyond the standard diplomatic and military domains to include geo-strategic, information, economic, financial, immigration, legal, counter-leadership, and other initiatives.  Some of these measures would comprise declaratory policies designed to deter Chinese actions, give confidence to allies and friends, and shape the broader operating environment. Other measures would be classified and designed in part to keep the Chinese off-balance and encourage greater caution in Beijing.

There will certainly be people in allied countries who would prefer their governments to turn a blind eye. However, the nature and scale of the Chinese challenge means that a failure of the United States and its allies in the region to respond with a robust counter-strategy would have fundamental implications for global security. For a start, it would effectively cede sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea to China. Giving Beijing effective control over such a major transport and communications expanse would have very substantial and enduring geo-strategic implications. It would reconfigure major parts of the security environment in the Western Pacific and seriously complicate many types of future allied operations.

The second major consequence would be acquiescence to Beijing’s serious breaches of international law. This would do great damage to decades of allied effort to build frameworks of international law that govern international relations, commerce, and international disputes. It would signal to the global community that the Western allies are not prepared to defend international law.

A third key consequence is the risk of emboldening China to launch other, potentially more serious, acquisitive operations in coming years. Beijing may view the timidity, distraction, and disorganization of other nations as an invitation to seize further  strategic territories and undertake other highly assertive operations. Hence, by remaining timid and flat-footed, allied leaders would run a serious risk of fostering a far more serious conflict with China in coming years that would be much harder, if not impossible, to avoid.

A fourth major consequence of failing to act in a robust manner would be damaging allied deterrence. Weak Western action at this point would send very unfortunate messages not just to Beijing, but also to Moscow and Pyongyang.

A fifth consequence of U.S. inaction would be forcing a major recalibration of defense and broader national security assumptions by almost all allied and friendly states in the Western Pacific, and many beyond. Given the ineffective responses of allied leaders to such serious transgressions of international law and global security norms, what changes should they make to their own security planning? Some   are already exploring new and potentially more reliable security partnerships. Others may launch new programs of self-defense, yet others may surrender key elements of their sovereignty to reach accommodations with Beijing or other revisionist regimes.

The security of the Western Pacific remains a core interest of the United States and its close allies. There is a strong imperative for the incoming Trump administration to make the formulation of an effective counter-strategy an early priority.


Ross Babbage is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and CEO of Strategic Forum.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Dakota Rayburn

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25 thoughts on “It is High Time to Outmaneuver Beijing in the South China Sea

    1. I would add that those specific suggestions are also missing from the study on which this article is based.

      The US and its allies are already implementing many of the diplomatic approaches suggested by the author. So far, they have not been noticeably effective.

      China clearly views its dominance in the South China Sea as a critical element in its growth as a super-power. It seems unlikely that another clear statement of our objections or ‘quality’ academic research or further economic sanctions will deter them.

      The question, unasked and unanswered by the author, but at the heart of our quandary, is how would China respond if we were to destroy one of the islands, with the threat of destroying all of them?

      And the follow-up question: are we prepared to respond to China’s response?

      If we can’t answer the follow-up question with an unqualified ‘yes’, then we need to grudgingly accept China’s version of the Monroe Doctrine, while being prepared to use force if it becomes necessary to protect our interests. (Which is my understanding of current policy).

    2. It is very difficult to out play China when most of the other Asean countries prefer a strong China to a Trump led US who we all suspect is a racist. Look how Cambodia has backed China, the Philippines have changed sides and Malaysia andThailand preferring China to the US. No one in South East Asia wants war. It’s the US and their propaganda machine that is meddling in the SCS. No one trusts Trump and that is the key reason why Asean will prefer a brokered arrangement with China then risking a racist Trump treating Asians like 3rd class citizens. Taiwan has always been part of China. If they do not want to assimilate back to China, they are welcome to migrate and live under the corrupt regime of the pending Trump administration. The US is not wanted in South East Asia.

  1. Article is very good in regard to what’s wrong and the consequences; however, the ‘fix’ is really vague. I couldn’t find anything that I could sink my teeth into, like ‘Immigration ‘ as a thwart. How about
    Gunboat diplomacy? Peace through Strength? You have to understand the bully; the rule-breaker; the person you just can’t get along with, that wants everything his way. You can’t talk to him. You can’t ‘make nice’ to him. And you can’t let him have what he’s taken, and say, ok, that’s yours, but you can’t have anymore. Just look at history: Hitler and Chamberlain. When Chamberlain came back, the last time, held up a paper, stating that peace had been negotiated, by allowing Hitler to keep EVERYTHING HE TOOK, then war was not far behind. Hitler knew the allies were desperate not to go to war, and their resolve, even after the war started, was pathetic. They weren’t ready, had no resolve, had no plans. Consequently, they lost all of Europe, being routed by inferior numbers.
    Years ago, my middle son came home with a problem: At recess, another boy would run around, and attempt to grab other boys; well, you know. He said the teacher had been told about this, but hadn’t done anything. He asked me what to do. I told him: To beat the shit out of the kid and not get off him until he was pulled off. And, if he got in trouble, to call me, and I’d be on my way to the school. You see, there are children, adults, and others, including world leaders, who do not understand ANTHING except FORCE! You remind the CHICOMMS of their lies and transgressions in regard to the islands. You tell them, in no uncertain terms, that everyone is tired of their shit. You tell them you’re going to run through there with everything you have. You do it. In the meantime, you renew close ties with Taiwan. You tell the CHICOMMS it’s their fault. You start placing tariffs on their exports, while you plan the return of businesses located in China. You arm your allies, there, to the teeth, and get very cozy with them, and everything will be fine. Just like the Emperor in Star Wars said, ‘ Everything is proceeding the way I have foreseen it. ‘

    1. For Chamberlain’s UK, the dilemma is, if UK accommodate Germany, UK would lose to Germany gradually, and if UK confront/fight Germany, UK would lose eventually too.

      Whenever Germany succeed or not, UK was destined to be drawn down from the throne. The result is new world powers, be it Germany (if Germany win), or USA and USSR (when UK win).

      That’s what history tends to go.

  2. The real 800 pound gorilla in a SCS conflict are the US’s Virginia class SSNs. A dozen of those subs will completely shut down freighter traffic to and from China. Does China survive even six months without any exports or imports? Perhaps not. The US should stop building aircraft carriers and construct more fast attack subs.

    I have real questions whether Taiwan will be still independent four weeks after Trump’s inauguration. Taiwan gets overrun within 72 hours after China attacks. Is Trump capable of handling such a crises? Such an incident is orders of magnitude more difficult to deal with than Trump’s bankruptcies.

      1. Gents, do your research before giving a thumbs up on attack subs. First, the South and East china seas are essentially shallow seas unlike the Atlantic. This means it is much harder for subs to stay undetected. With state of the art, helicopter launched sub killing torpedoes, the chances of a sub evading these torpedoes are slim. That is why the US is trialling unmanned subs.

        China has also developed land to sea (including underwater) missiles. It is a very cheap and effective method to defend the SCS as opposed to the cost of aircraft carriers.

        Bottom line is that all subs, be it US, Japanese, Russian or Chinese subs are very vunerable. Different matter if a war was fought in the deep Atlantic.

        1. Before you accuse others, you might want to do some more research yourself – by far the larger part of the SCS is well over 1000 feet deep, plenty deep for submarine operations by any country. And even the ECS is mostly several hundred feet deep, do-able for a competent submarine crew.

          Also, helo-dropped ASW torpedoes are nothing new, have been around for many decades, and to actually hit a submarine you first have to detect it, then localize, then pull off an attack. Not simple for even the best navies.

  3. My view is totally contrary. This fellow Babbage assumes that the Chinese investment in islands off the Chinese mainland are for some nefarious purpose. I think it is far more understandable that -since that waterway is more important for China than anyone else, and -since it is their own front/back door on the ocean, that they guard it. I think China will guard it best. What is this insane thing in the USA of suspecting anyone that has defensive weapons of harming the USA? I applaud China’s move, and applaud their ignoring the arrogant Western insistences.

  4. Basically we have been following a policy of appeasement. Maybe sugar-coated, but appeasement.

    I, too, found little in the way of specific recommendations to cure. The incremental strategy of the Chinese can make that an almost impossible task.

    My concern is that the longer we appease China, the more difficult it will be to dissuade them from their approach. If you have a school-yard bully, the only way to stop them is head-on.

    Do we want to fight them now? Or in 5 years after they’ve locked down the SCS and have the technology and skills to be a serious threat to the US and allies? I would prefer to take them on while they still have weaknesses we can exploit.

    I know this is a very unpopular choice, but I see no real and realistic alternatives out there.

    1. I totally agree with you, except that the school bully is the US, not China. We are talking about the South and East China seas, it’s China’sea backyard and there is no logical reason why the US should be meddling there.

      I understand it is hard to accept that the US is no longer the sole superpower since the collapse of the USS. China is also a force, but has lacked experience in warfare. All these we weaknesses make no difference when we are talking about nukes. China has less than 1000 nukes, bit all it takes is 10-15 nukes to destroy a nation. Do what if you have 200o plus nukes, it’s irrelevant. That is why a minnow nation like North Korea or iran is dangerous. Trump’s tweets promoting a nuclear arms race is one of the most outrageous comments to ever come out of the mouth of a future US president.

      1. No, it’s China that is the school yard bully here. Just because those Oceans have the word ‘China’ in their name doesn’t mean they are sovereign Chinese territory. I come from New Zealand. Do you know where the ‘old’ Zealand is? The Netherlands. Does that mean I’m actually Dutch?
        Names don’t mean anything, the notion that some reefs 160km away from the coast of the Phillipines that are in turn 1000km away from Hainan could conceivably be Chinese is laughable.
        The United States is the sole superpower in our world and is legally allied to many east and south east asian countries, China is building these islands in order to hold its neighbours hostage. So again, you’re wrong about the bully part.
        As a clear member of the 50 cent party, can I ask if its actually true that you get 50 cents per post? :D

  5. I think the allied countries could well understand how India dealt with Chinese incursions into Indian territory on the state of AP. On the chinese map, AP was called Southern Tibet. There would be constant incursions by PLA units . The excuse was that the Chinese did not know where the border was. So they would move the border and put up a tent. They would be then be confronted by Indian Troops. Tense moments would subside then the PLA would move back their troops into Chinese Territory. This would be done repeatedly.

    PM Modi comes into office. The Chinese would continue to do the incursions. So they confronted the PLA . They are building bases and roads on the border. They raised an additional a hundred thousand troops on the border. They are extending Indian Railways to the border for military use.

    Incursions stopped. The Chinese government continues to say its a disputed border to this day. The chinese maps continue to say Southern Tibet.

    Thats how the Modi government dealt with China. Match force with force. Dont back down. The Chinese government has backed down.

    1. You know the US has attacked, invaded and then lose the war. Border skirmishes are really an ongoing process between India, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Your view that China blinked is a lie. If Modi is strengthening it’s borders, China will naturally respond over time. China has bigger fish to fry.

    2. And now Modi negotiated with the Russians to get S400s which puts India in a real good position vs. China and Pakistan.
      Controlling the SCS is controlling the flow of resources throughout the region, everything from Australia to Korea. It would be like Italy militarizing the Mediterranean. They would have big time leverage over everyone from Israel to Spain.

  6. Even if we agree to all of China’s demands in the South China Sea, eventually China will go too far, and there will be nuclear war. The longer we wait the more prepared China will be.

    Maybe you don’t want war, but war wants you.

    Analysts keep telling us that both China and the US must be careful, or an accident or miscalculation could lead to nuclear war. Yet, China isn’t being careful. It does as it pleases.

    When Chinese ships sail near the Senkaku Islands, sink them.

  7. ‘most international observers had few doubts that many of China’s actions in the South China Sea were serious breaches of international law’.
    That’s because most ‘international observers’ quoted in our media happen to derive income from Western sources. Those whose income is independent of Western sources have found it difficult to fault China’s behavior.Reference

  8. The best approach was to blockade, or “quarantine” the military construction of those rocks at the time when they were still not fully constructed. The totally incompetent U.S. President Obama, who never studied either U.S. or world histories in depth and was over-indulged in golfing, missed the golden opportunity. Now, the situation is more difficult for the incoming president.

  9. The article is mostly abstract nouns (verbiage) without a clear purpose or message. What we lack strong implacable US leadership. In other words, Trump. Is he an incapable opportunist without intelligence, understanding of the ‘complexities’, etc? On the contrary, he is a savvy judge of character and opponent vulnerabilities. His opening challenge to the 1-China policy was pure genius. You don’t let the opponent decide the process and outcome by restricting yourself to the challenges he presents to you, you counter attack by directing challenges at his vital interests. Trade, economy, Taiwan, technology theft all can be redirected at China and turned to our advantage. Imbalance the enemy, attack from behind, generate uncertainty, and develop and deploy imposing strength. Hussein was a social worker. He has no understanding of power and has allowed these incredible foreign situations to occur. Trump is a wheeler dealer who understands poker and the power of taking the lead, not running after the Dragon’s road apples. The strategy is Trump, not a dozen uncoordinated theoretical moves that have no effect. Leadership!

  10. Asian Nations should look and learn what have been happened in the Meddle East Nations. For example Syria, civil war for almost five years. Thousands have been lost their lives. Millions have been fled their country. Thousands of beautiful cities, schools, hospitals and residents have been destroyed. Therefore, there are many other countries in the Meddle East have them same problem. So, I hope that Asian Nations (Asian people) must be smarter than….Don’t let any country from the outside to stir up in the region. Good luck! :)

  11. Well, If China starts doing fighter intercepts in the SCS, I guess there is nothing to do but to immediately land on the only airstrip for miles around and surrender. In the middle of the airstrip. Stranding the CAP as they run out of fuel overhead. Oh wait – no more CAP? Bu BYE! Perfect mission for the C-130.

    Or, you can make an accident happen – like declare a state of emergency with 4 smoking engines and buzz the runway… spraying a unique “engine lubricant” along the entirety of the 10,000 foot runway. Good luck running operations off THAT deck! Hope they stocked up on Dawn.