Dangerous Waters: Responding to China’s Maritime Provocations in the South China Sea

U.S. military forces take up positions during the annual

Dangerous Waters: Responding to China’s Maritime Provocations in the South China Sea

Americans have learned, sometimes painfully, that what happens in seemingly obscure corners of the world can hurt them at home. Consequently, Americans dismiss Chinese activities in the South China Sea at their own peril.


CHINA’S CAMPAIGN of expansion in the South China Sea (SCS) threatens the core economic and national security interests of the United States, its partners and the international community. Beijing’s actions in the SCS are not an isolated challenge, but rather one component of a larger effort to push U.S. and allied military power further back from mainland China. Without a timely, comprehensive and robust response by the United States and its partners, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) aggression may grow more acute.

While the PRC has raised alarms on both sides of the Pacific with its attempted power grab in Hong Kong, its routine violations of human rights, its trade conflicts with the United States and its cyber activities, Beijing’s continued campaign of expansion and intimidation against its SCS neighbors remains a matter requiring urgent attention. China’s numerous provocations in the SCS threaten the free and open system of trade and commerce essential to the prosperity of the United States and its partners. As noted in the Pentagon’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific, one-third of global shipping transits the SCS. Indeed, the broader Indo-Pacific region accounts for two-thirds of global economic growth in gross domestic product. Should Beijing establish military hegemony in the SCS, the PRC could dictate which nations could and could not transit associated trade routes.


On multiple fronts, the PRC has embraced combative tactics in the SCS, ranging from the illegal construction of military island-bases to spurious legal claims regarding the outer limits of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China’s SCS strategy also includes the outright intimidation of neighbors and the dangerous, unprofessional harassment of vessels operating in international waters.

The U.S. response to Beijing’s coercion campaign will need to draw on capabilities from across the full spectrum of federal agencies. It must begin by strengthening America’s military position in the region, which plays an important role in reassuring allies and increasing political leverage. The United States should also further formalize its public affairs and information strategy in order to regain the initiative on the information battlefield. Washington should also lean on executive branch instruments such as the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC), foreign military sales (FMS) and potentially even explore a modified foreign military financing (FMF) program focused specifically on the Indo-Pacific region. America should support these goals in conjunction with its regional partners that likewise have a vested interest in keeping the South China Sea free and open.

The current administration has done much to move U.S. policy in the SCS forward, yet Beijing has done even more to escalate the challenge. America must close the gap between current and optimal U.S. policy.

A MAJOR component of China’s strategy in the SCS involves the use of “gray zone” operations, which, according to the congressionally-mandated National Defense Strategy Commission, take place in the “space between war and peace” and “include everything from strong-arm diplomacy and economic coercion, to media manipulation and cyberattacks, to use of paramilitaries and proxy forces.” Gray-zone tactics aim to “confound or gradually weaken an adversary’s positions or resolve without provoking a military response.”

A common feature of China’s gray-zone gambits is the use of spurious legal claims, often supported by concerted propaganda campaigns. A notable example is that, despite a 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that firmly rebuked China’s claims in the SCS, Beijing continues to flagrantly and systematically assert its “indisputable sovereignty” over the SCS. In practice, this means that China seeks to dominate its SCS neighbors by quashing the competing claims of weaker powers such as Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia. For instance, Chinese vessels were caught sabotaging Vietnamese underwater cables in 2011 and seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012. In 2014, the PRC sent an oil rig into disputed offshore territory claimed by Vietnam—an incident during which Vietnamese and Chinese ships rammed one another. Various EEZ disputes between China and its neighbors remain unresolved, as demonstrated by the 2019 flare-up between Beijing and Hanoi. Most importantly, China has illegally claimed features in the South China Sea by building and militarizing numerous artificial islands despite its pledge not to do so. 

The PRC’s irregular maritime militia, the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), implements many of Beijing’s maneuvers in the SCS. The PAFMM, using numerous ostensibly civilian vessels, harasses the vessels of countries with rival territorial claims while using the PAFMM’s “civilian” legal status as a shield against action. The militia was involved in the harassment of Vietnamese survey ships in 2011, the Scarborough Shoal incident in 2012, the Chinese oil rig deadlock in 2014 and a significant incursion near the disputed Senkaku Islands in 2016. According to a 2019 Defense Intelligence Agency report, the PAFMM “plays a major role in coercive activities to achieve China’s political goals without fighting.” These activities are incompatible with international law and norms, and are at odds with the interests of the United States and our regional allies and partners.

China feels empowered to take these actions based on Beijing’s apparent belief that the military balance of power in the region has shifted in its favor. A comprehensive 2019 report by Australian researchers Ashley Townshend, Brendan Thomas-Noone and Matilda Steward at the United States Studies Centre documents the shift. Recent decades have seen the PRC pursue a massive military buildup, including an ambitious maritime modernization program. Today, the size of its navy rivals that of the U.S. Navy. Although still qualitatively inferior to its American counterpart, the PRC Navy boasts more hulls, and its shipyards are churning out modern ships at breakneck rates that far outstrip U.S. naval output. 

In addition, the PRC uses geography to its advantage. For some time, China has been pursuing an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy in the SCS via the deployment of a layered cruise and ballistic missile system that threatens U.S. and allied forces operating in the region. In May 2018, China deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and air defense systems to three of its man-made islands to expand this A2/AD envelope. In 2019, the PRC conducted a number of military exercises in the SCS, including the test of an anti-ship ballistic missile from one of its man-made islands against a maritime target. Moreover, while the U.S. Navy is spread around the world in support of its global missions, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is largely concentrated in the Indo-Pacific region. Thus, China could likely bring more ships to bear in the opening stages of a conflict—an advantage compounded by its in-theater, land-based combat aircraft, anti-ship missiles, and command and control infrastructure. 

The collective result of these factors is to diminish America’s strategic footing relative to the PRC and invite future conflict. Washington must reverse this trajectory through prompt and coordinated policy action.

BY MEANS of a nimble combination of diplomatic groundwork, conventional military power, development finance and punitive economic measures, the United States can begin to slow and perhaps eventually halt China’s advances in the SCS. To this end, the United States must deploy increased combat power to the SCS, strengthen the multi-nation coalition confronting Beijing’s illegal actions and set the U.S. Treasury Department’s sights on China in the SCS.

The critical first step toward countering Chinese aggression is to reassure and mobilize allies in the region. Absent reassurance, countries in the region may be inclined to move away from the United States and make the best deal they can with an assertive China, as was the case with the Philippines when Washington failed to support that country in its dispute with China over Scarborough Shoal.

To its credit, the Trump administration has worked with allies to ramp up multilateral maritime patrols in the SCS, sought to increase the size of the U.S. Navy and publicly chastised Chinese officials over PRC conduct in the region. While laudable, these moves have not checked China’s brazen and, at times, reckless behavior. Contrary to international law, China continues to assert its exclusive sovereignty over extensive areas within the SCS.

China’s regional tactics are most effective when it can take advantage of the highly asymmetrical power differential between Beijing and each of its neighbors. The United States can effectively counter this strategy by creating and strengthening a network of capable allies that are unified in their opposition to the PRC’s aggression. In other words, Washington should seek to make the competition multilateral wherever possible. China’s activities, after all, threaten the stability of the entire region and of the broader international community. A response to its actions should reflect that.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo provided a strong example of how to reassure allies in the region during his visit to the Philippines. There he reinforced the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951, stating that the United States considers the treaty’s obligations to encompass the SCS: “Any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations.” These positive diplomatic signals, however, must be backed up with tangible action.

Moving forward, the United States can, in conjunction with allies, deter China by threatening its ability to operate beyond the “first island chain”—the series of islands running parallel to the Chinese coast. If the PRC seeks to deny access to the South China Sea, the United States and its allies can return the favor by making it clear to the PRC that in the event of a conflict, the United States is capable of and has the will to deny China’s access to the wider Pacific and the Indian Ocean.