China’s Self-Defeating Strategy in the South China Sea

At a moment when China is launching initiatives like the New Maritime Silk Road, its South China Sea policy creates new sources of friction and undermines its position in Southeast Asia. 

Over roughly the past two years, China has initiated an expansive land reclamation program in the South China Sea to build up and assert greater control over disputed islands and land features. While intended to advance China’s de facto control of the South China Sea and enhance its strategic position in the contested waters, in reality, Beijing’s machinations are equally likely to be both tactical and strategic errors.

At a moment when China is launching initiatives like the New Maritime Silk Road and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to foster regional development and cultivate goodwill, its South China Sea policy creates new sources of friction and undermines its position in Southeast Asia. Yet, despite promulgating tensions throughout the region, China could unilaterally define the region’s trajectory, as ASEAN remains divided and uncertain of the way forward on the South China Sea. Ultimately, it is incumbent on international and regional partners, like the United States, to provide Southeast Asian states with strategic diversity in their diplomatic, economic, and security engagements, so that they have the confidence to resist coercive actions and help advance a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific region.

At the tactical level, the reclaimed disputed islands are likely to serve as festering sores in China’s bilateral relationships with other South China Sea claimants, contributing to a volatile environment that could flare up at any moment. As an example, while China militarily gained full control of the Paracel Islands in 1974 from Vietnam, Hanoi does not recognize that claim. Over forty years later, Vietnam vessels continue to challenge China’s sovereignty over the islands. There is little reason to believe that the newly built-up features will not face similar harassment from rival claimants and serve as perennial sources of bilateral friction. Particularly if China militarizes the disputed features and attempts to unilaterally enforce its will or restrict access (such as through an Air Defense Identification Zone), we can likely expect neighbors to respond with low-level challenges (like fishing vessel incursions or passive defiance of China-imposed mandates, such as ignoring its annual fishing ban), which in turn could quickly escalate.

China’s military and maritime build-up, and indications of how Beijing intends to employ its increasing power, are driving a number of regional states to increase their own defense spending. There is a clear recognition that Japan’s superior defense capabilities (and alliance with the United States) allowed it to much more effectively face down PRC pressure over the disputed Senkaku Islands. The Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei are each pursuing enhanced maritime capabilities, spurring a nascent regional arms race. While these countries are unable to compete with China’s forces on a one-to-one basis, new acquisitions in submarines, anti-submarine helicopters, fighters, and advanced patrol vessels can raise the potential risk and costs of Chinese action (mirroring China’s own Anti-Access/Area Denial approach vis-à-vis the United States).

Strategically, China’s activities are raising profound questions across the region of the type of rising power it will be. During an earlier regional charm offensive, China entered in a landmark agreement with ASEAN to diffuse tensions and prevent a land grab for the disputed islands. Signed in 2002, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea forbids the types of land reclamation and military build-up China is now undertaking. Now we witness China’s disregard for this important commitment, and apparent attempts to divide ASEAN unity on important questions for the institution. With the accumulated track record of behavior, the threat perception of China is rising and regional countries are actively questioning the extent to which they can trust Beijing.