In the past four years, the South China Sea
has been at the centre of the strategic competition between Beijing and Washington. The United States views China’s increasingly assertive actions
in the South China Sea as the most pressing threat to the existential order in the Indo-Pacific region.
On one hand, in response to China’s territorial claims and military activities in the region, the US has been working closely with its allies and partners to contain and counter China’s efforts. On the other hand, the US has been enhancing
its own deterrence, surveillance and combat readiness capabilities in the area.
A mutual increase in military activities leads to more uncertainty in the South China Sea. From the near collision
of American and Chinese warships in 2018 to the duelling military exercises in 2020, the danger of an armed conflict between the two countries continues to rise.
Despite the significance and severity of the potential risks in the South China Sea, it should not be viewed as an individual hotspot but rather as an epicentre of the grand strategic competition between China and the US in the Indo-Pacific region
. The complex competition focuses on several aspects.
First, Beijing and Washington are competing for the leading role in regional governance. The South China Sea code of conduct
negotiation is seen by Washington as Beijing’s attempt to exclude the US from framing a regional order. Conversely, Beijing sees Washington as undermining the negotiation process by influencing countries to divide the negotiating parties over issues such as the 2016 South China Sea arbitration award
China and the US are also competing for sea power in the South China Sea. The power balance in the region is undeniably shifting with China’s rise, but the US seeks to preserve and enhance a stable and diversified American-led security order within the region.
Furthermore, China’s rising naval power and its land reclamation efforts
are perceived as a direct challenge to the United States’ long-time sea power advantage. In response, the US and its allies have increased military presence in the region to sustain a favourable power balance.
However, this increased American presence in the South China Sea is perceived by China as an effort to contain its growing overseas interests
. This ultimately deteriorates mutual trust between leaders in Beijing and Washington.
The shifting balance of power also has significant implications to the US alliance system. American allies and partners from outside the region have also begun to engage
in the South China Sea as the shifting balance of power in the region inevitably affects their interests.
For instance, Australia, Japan
, the United Kingdom
have all increased their military cooperation and involvement with the US and Southeast Asian countries in the region. The competition might primarily centre around the strategic competition between Beijing and Washington, but it has increasingly become a globalised and more complex renewed competition of great maritime powers.
As the largest marginal sea of the western Pacific, the South China Sea serves as the crucial connection between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Annually, around 64 per cent of China’s foreign trade and 60 per cent of China’s oil imports
comes through the South China Sea.
It is unlikely China will back down from its territorial and maritime claims as it concerns notions of national pride and sovereignty as well as vital overseas interests. While the US might involve its allies to compete with China, one might ask whether it is worth risking a permanent change to the status quo by renewing competition among maritime great powers.
Japan, Australia, Britain, France and India are taking steps to advance their influence in the region. So far, these countries have a shared goal in containing China’s assertive actions to prevent it from taking a leading role in the South China Sea.
However, this alignment of interest could deteriorate over time. Things could become more complicated when these countries’ interests combine with the disputes between members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Asean countries such as Vietnam
and the Philippines
have sought external support from extra-regional great maritime powers to counter China. Their hedging strategy has resulted in leasing out military bases, conducting arms sales and inviting foreign petroleum companies to explore and extract materials in disputed areas
With more extra-regional great maritime powers involved in the South China Sea, the US could gain momentum in maintaining the power balance in the area, thereby gaining advantage over China. Simultaneously, however, the relative lack of power of Asean countries would only worsen.
With or without the China factor, bringing in more extra-regional great maritime powers could risk Asean’s independence
and encourage parties to regional disputes to seek more extreme measures beyond their current capabilities.
Stability in the South China Sea is paramount to the entire world. It is worth keeping in mind that a clear distinction must be drawn between bilateral strategic competition and multilateral great maritime power competition.
China and the US should establish a crisis prevention mechanism together to control the intensity of their strategic competition in the region. Military activities
on both sides should be restrained at the current level and military dialogues should be restored to improve both mutual trust and channels of communication.
Additionally, both countries should continue to promote code of conduct negotiations
with Asean countries and push for pragmatic resolutions to prevent crisis in disputed areas. US-China strategic competition is complex enough, we do not need a renewed competition among great maritime powers.
Dr Wu Shicun is president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, China