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Posted by on Oct 24, 2015 in Asia Pacific, Featured | 9 comments

South China Sea Crisis and Intensifying US-Chinese Relations

South China Sea Crisis and Intensifying US-Chinese Relations

Image via Flickr

Image via Flickr

The most recent talks at the 14th annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a security forum attended by governments from Asian Pacific countries, have again brought forward the question of territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Islands, most notably the Spratly Islands, within the Sea promise regional countries economic benefits due to their extensive oil and natural gas reserves, and their abundant fishing opportunities. The South China Sea also facilitates $5.3 trillion worth of international trade annually making it a commercial asset for several nations (Counting the Cost, Aljazeera, 2015). However, China’s seemingly unlawful annexation and its increasing militarisation of about 80 per cent of the Spratly Islands have given regional actors – such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia – and the international community a cause for worry. Although affected nations have expressed their discontent towards China for its aggressive behaviour, it is the straining of relations due to conflict of interests between the United States and China that could potentially be destabilising.

The primary point of contention for the US is the economic and commercial setback they might experience due to China’s access to abundant oil reserves and prohibition of free navigation for Americans in the South China Sea. A boost in the Chinese economy following an acquisition of 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of gas from the seabed of the South China Sea, as estimated by the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company, poses a threat to the balance of economic influence in Asia (Glaser, Council on Foreign Relations, 2012). China may attain hegemonic capabilities, thus roping the US into conflict in an attempt to keep China at bay.

Image via Flickr

Image via Flickr

On the one hand, energy analysts from large US-based energy companies like Exxon and Chevron argue that Chinese economic growth due to extra resources will be marginal and it is highly unlikely to threaten US influence. They claim that Chinese estimates of oil and natural gas are grossly inflated. The US Energy Information Agency estimates only 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of gas are present under the surface of the South China Sea and points out that the amount is minuscule compared to what the US receives from their own turf and the Middle East (Lannin, ABC news, Aug 2015). Nevertheless, if Chinese estimates prove to be accurate, the US would have reason enough to intervene and prevent China’s exploits for additional resources in the South China Sea. This balancing act would partially be done because China would have the capabilities to increase the rate of exports to the US, widening the imbalance of payments and trade that already exists in China’s favour. Also, China’s claims over the Spratly Islands would force foreign vessels and planes to take different sea or flight routes other than the Western Pacific, thereby making imports more expensive and exports less profitable for the US and other countries that engage in international trade.

Another American interest at stake regarding the South China Sea crisis is regional security, considering the US serves as a guarantor for its allies in times of threat. In 1951, The Mutual Defence Treaty was signed between the Republic of Philippines and the US to assure assistance in the form of military training, equipment, and (if “constitutionally” permitted) physical presence of allied armies when externally threatened. If Filipino authorities declare the naval skirmishes involving firing and other damages by China as grave external threats, the US would be pulled in, raising the stakes of the conflict. Although American intervention would be very costly and destructive for both sides, defection on the mutual agreement would cause American credibility to falter not only in the eyes of the Philippines, but also by other regional actors such as Taiwan and Vietnam – countries with which the US also has diplomatic ties.

As such, US actions are a double edged sword, most accurately embodied in the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Incident. In response to Chinese fishing vessels present in the unoccupied reef of Scarborough, Philippines deployed a warship, resulting in a standoff between the two vessels. The tiff was over illegal fishing by the Chinese in an area considered Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), wherein the state can exercise “sovereign right” over a specific area of waters in the sea for commercial purposes. Washington’s mediation deal was accepted by both parties and was considered a success by American diplomats in the short term, until China broke the integrity of the deal, and occupied Scarborough reef anyway. The US, however, accepted China’s actions since Chinese vessels did not damage neighbouring ones to the point where Filipino security was threatened (The Diplomat, June 2015).

Image via Flickr

Image via Flickr

If the US continues to accept Chinese expansionism on the grounds of it being nonviolent, there will no end to the annexation in the South China Sea because quiet piecemeal occupation has been China’s strategy so far and continues to prevail. The term ‘Cabbage strategy’ has been coined to describe China’s steady and gradual acquisition of other countries’ EEZs for reclamation purposes and usage of paramilitary forces on the new reclaimed land, to avoid being deemed unlawful (The Diplomat, 2013). It might get to a point when China has enough power to enforce its claims through force and subsequently trigger the Security Dilemma as outlined by neorealist thinkers in International Relations (IR) theory, when states’ distrust of other states compel them to arm themselves in the name of security. One could argue that recent increases to the Filipino and Vietnamese military arsenal is a precautionary response to the US being an untrustworthy ally, and China being far too elusive about their plans with the Islands in the South China Sea.

Furthermore, expanding upon IR theory, miscalculations during American reconnaissance naval exercises and the media exacerbating the conflict could lead to a Conflict Spiral. Aljazeera sources have estimated that at the rate at which China is arming itself, the Islands will be equipped with complete military garrisons, naval capabilities and paramilitary forces in two years. Although increasing militarisation of claimed islands might not prove provocative enough for the US, clashes between American and Chinese vessels is very likely given the number of them occupying the same region. In addition, China could declare the South China Sea as a core interest, as Beijing alluded to in 2010, prompting the US to intervene. Conversely, the US might take a more offensive stance if they get intelligence that China has been downplaying their estimates of oil in the region to deviate world attention from the South China Sea. Therefore, information and media must be regulated to avoid misperceptions from both the American and Chinese side.

With all said, neither the US nor China would go to war upon the first chance. Threats would be exchanged, but negotiations and mediation would ensue in the background. In this way, the South China Sea Crisis can be compared to the the Cuban Missile Crisis, when it was in both countries’ best interests to not attack each other. Although the notion of nuclear annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis was the primary deterrent, the South China Sea Crisis has deterrents of its own. US and China putting economic sanctions on each other would be catastrophic for both countries due to their interdependence. Other powers in the world would also prioritise US-Chinese mediation as sanctions would affect their economies too. As long as American diplomacy is geared towards preventing China’s zero sum game in the region without overstepping its own legal and military boundaries, the South China Sea will be a relatively stable region.

Works Cited:

“Counting the Cost – The Scramble for the South China Sea.” YouTube. YouTube, 23 May 2015. Web.

Glaser, Bonnie S. “Armed Clash in the South China Sea.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, Apr. 2012. Web.

Kazianis, Harry. “China’s Expanding Cabbage Strategy.” The Diplomat. N.p., 29 Oct. 2013. Web.

“Making Waves.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 02 May 2015. Web.

“US Must Hold Firm in South China Sea Dispute.” The Diplomat. N.p., 3 June 2015. Web.


  1. President O saw the writing on the wall, and was green with envy to the gills. He and Michelle got a small guest room at the Buckingham Palace when he visited in 2011. Mr. and Mrs. Xi got a bigger suite with working plumbing, AND they got a 103 gun salute rather than the measly 41 gun salute that the Obamas’ got. Almost 3 times as welcome by the Brits, that just cannot stand!!

    It is about face saving. England has really prostrated itself to now be the bestest partner that China’s money can buy in Europe, and it is expected that the rest of Europe would follow suit. Something has to be done, and sending gunboats and warplanes to violate China’s sovereign territory is a way to stir things up.

    One does wonder whether the Prez. has thought through the consequences of his temper tantrums. What if something accidentally got sunk?

    • Yes, consequences of impulsive action on either side would be dire given the immense military and economic capabilities that China and the US possess. Each power is also somewhat wary of each other’s high stakes. Hence, peaceful negotiations would most probably prevail despite accidental clashes or sunken vessels.

  2. There is a huge difference in both style and substance, on how America and China promote their agenda.

    China is asking its neighbors: Do you want help building up your infrastructure so that you can produce more to trade, so your people can live better lives? We offer capital (US$890 Billion ready for 60 countries), affordable infrastructure building expertise, and a US$2 Trillion a year China import market for your products.

    America asks: Do you need help excluding China and beating China to a pulp? We are looking for volunteers to gang up on the nation. America will sell you means of destruction; how much money y’got? No money? McCain promotes spending hundreds of millions to arm those Asians who want to be cannon fodder against China. But in return America (ala TPP) demands that the Asians drop their capital controls and proceed with “bank reforms” (nee allowing American Banksters to maraud at will with financial engineering).

    Which scenario is more attractive to the neighbors? The jury is still out. AIIB was but the first round.

    In an ideal world the rich America should bring capital and expertise to the table and help accelerate prosperity for the region. But it appears America is more interested in troublemaking. The little nations in the fray should look at Iraq (with its many millions of refugees) as example of the fate of countries that America more recently “helped”.

    See the AIIB and predict the outcome. Same thing. Most of the neighbors want infrastructure built on 30 year loans. America ain’t offering that.

    • US spent too much on HER annual military budget of 600 to 700 billion US$. Practically, no more money for INFRASTRUCTURE for others. Somemore, US need China and Japan to back them up with investment of the treasurety bonds. Yet, US is not thankful!

      • China and Japan are the largest holders of US debt (CNBC news, May 2015) so initiating conflict with China would not be in the United States’ best interests.

    • Perhaps the ideal outcome for regional actors within the short term context of the territorial disputes would be if their security was not threatened by any foreign vessel, whether it may be Chinese or American, as the livelihood of island inhabitants would be adversely affected.

      On a broader scale, and rightly pointed out, long term economic development through infrastructure would be beneficial for AIIB countries since it would not be constrained by international financial institutions that tend to be dominated by western economies. Therefore if evidence suggests that one of China’s aim is to establish a trading framework in the South China Sea for AIIB countries, then US intervention would be problematic.

  3. I appreciate the reference towards the conflict spiral this dilemma could cause. Are we possibly starting to see a new bi-polar world?

    • I don’t think that we’d see anything as polarized as the Cold War, but polarization in SEA between the US and China isn’t a stretch by any means. Russia is still involved in the Middle East, again head to head with the States, and there are tons of nations that still have interests in Africa.

      I think that in the current globalized (or globalizing) trend in international relations makes it almost impossible to have a bipolar relationship like we did after WW2. There are too many major actors and too many theatres of conflict (Ukraine, Syria, South Pacific, not to mention the entirety of the Indian subcontinent and India’s role as an emerging power) for any two states to really go head to head on a global stage, at least in my opinion.

    • Thank you for the comments and yes, I agree with the opinion that it is unlikely that we will have a bi-polar world system. With the emergence of influential economies like the BRICS countries that account for a sizeable percentage of world population and Gross World Product, countries are less incentivised to form alliances for security purposes. Also, referring to the point previously mentioned about our increasingly globalising world (although there is a separate argument that suggests the extent of globalisation), developed and developing economies around the world are interconnected as as to serve as a deterrent. For example, 17 developing economies engage in 43% of world trade (Financial Times, June 2015) making American and Chinese trade economies significant but not dominating

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