Evaluating Options: Responses to China’s Maritime Strategy


China watchers need no introduction to the acrimonious disputes over islands in the South and East China Seas.  While China in Focus typically focuses on contemporary news, we also strive to inform our readers on long-running issues of importance to U.S.-China relations and the global community at large.  This month, we are pleased to publish several papers written by students in Professor Barbara Walter's  International Politics and Security  graduate course.  Each week, we will release one paper that explores the conflict from a specific angle.  We hope that these papers will provide not only food for thought, but also an enriched understanding of the complexities and challenges underlying all international politics.  Enjoy!

With China's rise to global prominence, overlooked territories in the South and East China Seas (SCS/ECS) have taken on significant value to states' security, economic interests, and political goals. The East Asian giant's growing importance greatly influences how these conflicts are resolved and requires an understanding of China's overall goals and strategy in the region.

Conflicts involving maritime territorial claims in East Asia have risen in recent years due to resource availability and an increasingly powerful China. Because land-based resources have well-defined ownership, more attention is now being paid to ocean resources like underwater hydrocarbon deposits and fisheries. With improved technology making deep-sea extraction possible, the estimated 90 million barrels of oil and 1.5 trillion ft of natural gas under the SCS/ECS have become an attractive prize to any nation able to tap them (Null). The fisheries within the exclusive economic zones surrounding the disputed landmasses are becoming increasingly valuable due to fish stock depletion worldwide. The rise of China as a dominant regional power exacerbates competition for resources because its strength, and decreasing fear of US retaliation, encourages it to challenge weaker states for the rights to resources in its backyard. By extension, this incentivizes China's regional opponents to make or defend their own territorial claims to contain this rising threat.

Although there are many states involved in this region's maritime disputes, I argue that the two main sides are China and the United States, with its core regional allies of Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Though numerous states have conflicting claims, China has proven able to promote its interests more decisively than other actors.  This trend towards decisive action finds evidence in China's numerous effective victories in the region, including its unilateral establishment of a regional government on the Spratly Islands (O'Rourke 18-19). Through conflict, China unsurprisingly seeks to secure valuable resources, bend the status quo in its favor, and expand its security buffer through territorial acquisitions. Conversely, its American-led opponents seek to limit Chinese expansion and maintain elements of the status quo that regulate the Chinese and lend credibility to their own actions.

China's current strategy in the SCS/ECS began when it claimed virtually all contested territory via the infamous 9-Dashed Line . It has since steadfastly defended this broad sovereignty claim, despite its lack of legal basis, using means ranging from shaky historical precedents to outright intimidation. The Chinese government's approach has been to operate as if its regional sovereignty is a given, using civilian and domestic police or its coastguard, rather than military forces, to pressure and harass opponents into submission (O'Rourke 24). This forms part of a strategy of salami-slicing  in which China gradually encroaches on its opponents' territory, never giving sufficient cause to declare war, while suffocating competing claims to the area (16). Using non-military forces allows China to play the injured party when confronted, before pushing for concessions in bilateral negotiations where it has the power advantage. This strategy is less effective toward territory claimed by US-backed states with a strong interest in maintaining their stake. In these cases, exemplified by the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, China pursues a strategy of attrition, draining the resources and resolve of opponents that attempt to match its posturing. This gradual escalation is seen in the Japanese coast guard's plan to form a 600-member unit to be deployed exclusively to the disputed islands (17).

Given the broad shadow that China casts over the region, the question of how to resolve these territorial disputes is really a matter of how effectively other actors can counter China's strategy. Opponents of the regional bully can band together to counterbalance its power. However, this has proven difficult because these smaller actors also compete with each other for territory. While logic dictates that it is more beneficial to band together and split the territory than lose everything to China, this type of cohesion was absent from the last round of ASEAN talks (Economist). Thus, China is likely to continue to be successful in ceding territory from these countries until they agree to cooperate. Another option is to involve the US, a strategy primarily available to the core allies listed earlier. However, given American policy towards disputes in the region, intervention will not come unless serious conflict is likely or crucial territories are taken by force (O'Rourke 30). Thus, it is in the interests of American allies to put the ball back into China's court by matching its escalation. By standing solidly behind their legitimate claim to the Senkaku Islands, Japan will force China to push the conflict further, creating potential justification for American involvement. Thus, I believe we may see this conflict, and those like it, resolved in a manner less than favorable to China's interests.

Works Cited

Null, Schuyler. “East Asia’s Many Maritime Disputes and the Imperative of Energy Access.” New Security Beat. N.p., 19 Mar. 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2013.

 O’Rourke, Ronald. “Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Service (2013): 1-106. Print.

 “South-East Asian and China: All Change at ASEAN.” The Economist. N.p., 9 Feb. 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2013.

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Paul Sherman

is a first-year student in the combined BA/MIA program at IR/PS, specializing in International Economics and Environmental Policy with a regional focus on China. His academic interests include food security in the face of climate change, Chinese political succession, and the impact of technological change on management strategies. Paul will graduate this June from UC San Diego's Marshall College Honors Program with a B.A. in International Studies, Political Science and a secondary focus in Economics. Following graduation from IR/PS he plans to work and study in China before returning to the United States to pursue an advanced degree in Agronomy.

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