The U.S. Military Can't Stop China from Taking the South China Sea

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June 11, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaU.S. NavyNavyMilitaryDefenseSouth China SeaTaiwan

The U.S. Military Can't Stop China from Taking the South China Sea

While the Taiwan Strait is the perceived epicenter of U.S.-China tensions, the South China Sea represents another critical flashpoint where conflicts could erupt.


Summary and Key Points: While the Taiwan Strait is the perceived epicenter of U.S.-China tensions, the South China Sea represents another critical flashpoint where conflicts could erupt.

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-China has asserted control over the region by building manmade islands and establishing a military presence, complicating international shipping and intimidating neighboring countries.

-This move, largely unchecked by the Obama administration, has allowed China to create a robust anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) network, enhancing its strategic advantage.

-The U.S., distracted by global crises and domestic issues, may struggle to counter China's advances. Without significant intervention from other regional powers, China could dominate the South China Sea in any conflict.

South China Sea: The Overlooked Flashpoint in U.S.-China Tensions

The world perceives the tension between the United States and the People’s Republic of China as existing squarely in that 100-mile swathe of water separating China from Taiwan known as the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, the Taiwan Strait is the center of gravity of any potential conflict between China and America. 

Yet there are many points of contact beyond the Taiwan Strait where tensions could boil over into a full conflagration between the two nuclear-armed powers. One such area is the South China Sea

China’s History of Aggression

China’s government likes to challenge new American presidents to see how much they can get away with under the new president’s leadership. Early in the Obama administration, China began an ambitious project to build manmade islands in the South China Sea. 

Beijing asserted that the maritime territory in question belonged to China. It based its claims on ancient maps from times when the old Chinese empire laid claim to what are now international waters in the South China Sea. To back its claims, Beijing moved its presence beyond its territory and established a permanent position that sits astride international shipping lanes. 

Not only did this complicate international travel and shipping in one of the busiest corridors in the world, but it also allowed for China to harass and intimidate its neighbors.

The fact that some of the world’s largest untapped natural gas deposits sit in the seabed of the South China Sea also encouraged China to establish its illegal forward presence in international waters. Like an unruly child, China stuck its hand in the proverbial cookie jar to see when the parent would slam it shut. 

But nothing ever happened. 

China South China Sea

Obama not only did nothing, but was convinced by some of his top China advisers – notably Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell – to ignore the island-building as little more than a distraction from possibly getting a deal with Beijing on some important trade and security issues. 

So China’s gambit resulted in a permanent fixture that benefited Beijing and harmed the U.S. and its allies. 

Obama and his team were categorically wrong in their approach. Once the Chinese regime determined it could hold those manmade islands and expand its presence in what should have been international waters, there was no stopping China’s military.

To be clear: The Chinese manmade islands and additional military presence in the South China Sea are not benign. Nor is China’s stationing of its forces in the South China Sea easily rolled back, either by China’s neighbors or their American backers. 

From 2009 until now, China has managed to build a honeycomb of comprehensive anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) systems throughout the region that are designed to do two things: prevent the deployment of U.S. forces into the region during a crisis, and create a shield behind which China’s forces can move with relative impunity against their neighbors to shore up illegitimate claims in the South China Sea.

The Advantage Goes to China in the South China Sea

After more than a decade of this situation in the South China Sea, the United States now finds itself in a dangerous spot. Its military is stretched, with multiple geopolitical crises from the killing fields of Europe to the geopolitical quicksand of the Middle East demanding America’s limited resources and attention. America’s leadership is feckless. Its people are divided and more concerned about matters closer to home. 

Back in the Cold War, the Soviets used to measure themselves against other nations – especially the United States – using its “correlation of forces” analysis

Whatever Beijing may decide to do about Taiwan now, triggering a crisis in the South China Sea is a tempting scenario – the balance of forces favors China, and such a crisis could further weaken America. 

Given the amount of resources China has dedicated to the South China Sea, if a shooting war erupts, unless multiple major powers in the region step in to stop China, Beijing’s forces will take the South China Sea for itself. It’s simply a question of time. 

Because if it is up to the United States (or even up to the U.S. and the Philippines), the Chinese will have the territory to themselves in no time. 

About the Author: 

Brandon J. Weichert, a National Interest national security analyst, is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, the Asia Times, and The-Pipeline.

All images are Creative Commons or Shutterstock.