Most observers will agree that China has been militarizing the South China Sea, and since no country appears ready to reverse this trend by force, the shadow of China’s military and paramilitary presence will grow in the years to come. Those concerned with East Asian security need to think about what the South China Sea will look like five years down the road, and consider the politico-military-economic consequences of Chinese domination of the South China Sea. Coming up with effective responses that balance strategic imperatives with political considerations is key to dealing with China in the South China Sea.

Consequences of Chinese Dominance and Unilateralism in the South China Sea

What are the consequences of Chinese bases in the South China Sea? What is the South China Sea going to look like in the years to come? As recent Features from AMTI show, China has turned its artificial islands into fortified outposts that could readily serve paramilitary and military purposes. China could assign multiple functions to these bases to cause the following consequences:

First, these bases could replenish maritime law enforcement and maritime militia vessels, allowing China to impose what it deems “domestic jurisdiction and regulation” more rigorously. China could declare “economic zones” where it does not hold legitimate maritime claims, and block foreign fishing vessels from operating in those areas. Chinese maritime law enforcement authorities and/or maritime militia could easily scare off foreign fishermen by arresting or otherwise punishing them. If foreign governments respond with nothing more than diplomatic protests, Chinese fishing vessels would have a virtually free hand to monopolize fishery resources in the South China Sea. China could also harass foreign marine transportation vessels on the grounds of violating some Chinese “domestic regulation” in its self-claimed maritime areas. While the motivation would be political, China could use technical-legal reasons to apply economic pressure on foreign governments whose states rely on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Second, China would be able to expand its surveillance and reconnaissance activities during peacetime by using these bases as supply and refueling points for naval and air patrol assets, providing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) enhanced capability to monitor and detect U.S. and foreign military activities in the region. A PLA that could more effectively harass normal activities of foreign military units (see the recent seizure of a U.S. unmanned undersea vehicle) would make it increasingly difficult for the U.S. and other militaries to monitor Chinese activities, especially in the undersea domain. Peacetime competition to establish and enhance air and maritime domain awareness would shift in China’s favor. China would be better able to declare and regulate a South China Sea air defense identification zone.

Third, China could use these bases to sustain low-intensity military operations. Experts have pointed out in the past that these islands could easily be demolished if a war were to break out between China and the United States, and that would be correct in the event of a full-fledged war that involved kinetic operations against military bases. However, skirmishes and conflicts on the seas and over isolated land features could remain at the lower range of the conventional conflict spectrum. Protracted standoff situations would be more of a competition of continuous reinforcement and replenishment on the seas. With these resupply bases so close to potential conflict areas, China would have a distinct advantage in sustaining military pressure for the duration of any protracted maritime confrontations. In short, its island bases provide China with escalation dominance in individual standoff incidents at sea.

The above effects, taken together, would create Chinese regional hegemony. Some observers believe that China is isolating itself, but China appears to disagree. From a Chinese perspective, the countries that it pushed away during the course of expansion will return to its orbit once its dominance is realized, and it may in fact feel that this is already happening. At some point in the future, China is likely to choose a moment to demonstrate its might, and thereby generate the perception that it dominates the South China Sea.

A Framework for a Long-term Strategy for the South China Sea

What would be the ends, ways, and means constituting a long-term strategy for the South China Sea?

The goal of such a strategy would be to deter armed conflict and maintain an environment where states are able to fully exercise and enjoy their rights guaranteed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The ways of realizing this goal would involve enhancing conventional deterrence whereby major states like the United States, Japan, Australia, India, and even seafaring European nations would systematically provide military and paramilitary capacity-building programs to Southeast Asian nations through a maritime security policy coordination mechanism, and calibrate relations with China whenever it violates fundamental norms like peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea. Some methods of achieving the above might include:

  1. Further enhancing U.S. military presence through joint training and exercises, freedom of navigation operations, regular patrols, and forward deployment.
  1. Expanding arms exports to Southeast Asian nations. Although foreign military sales are competitive in nature, the overall approach of arms-exporting states should be coordinated as much as possible and also incorporate a competitive strategy perspective geared toward providing various military capabilities to coastal states of the South China Sea. Provision of buyer’s credit to Southeast Asian nations could facilitate and accelerate capability enhancement of regional states.
  1. Engaging primate companies to expand and enhance capacity-building programs for Southeast Asian states’ maritime law enforcement authorities. U.S. or multinational private maritime security companies – hired by local governments that are financially assisted by countries like the United States and Japan – could provide both training to local maritime law enforcement units and escorts for local fishing vessels that operate in China’s self-claimed maritime zones. U.S. and local military surveillance units could watch over escorted fishing activities, and warn and record the actions of Chinese maritime militia or law enforcement units whenever they harass foreign fishing vessels that are engaged in legitimate and lawful fishing activities. Escort activities by U.S. or multinational private maritime security companies would allow the United States and other countries to inject their presence at the paramilitary level in the South China Sea. Manned by former maritime law enforcement professionals, equipped with large vessels, and rapidly and selectively deployable, private maritime security units could potentially alleviate the paramilitary imbalance between China and other coastal states.
  1. Concluding a multilateral maritime security cooperation agreement between Southeast Asian states in need of maritime security assistance and the United States, Japan, Australia, and other states willing to preserve the freedom of the seas. The agreement should not include a mutual defense clause. Rather, it should establish a policy dialogue mechanism devoted to maritime security that would address issues concerning coordinated arms exports and capacity-building as mentioned above. In contrast to the current indirect, piecemeal approach, this coordination mechanism would enable systematic and coordinated capacity-building programs to advance with a clearer blueprint in the process of building conventional and law enforcement capabilities of regional states. The agreement could cover a number of important facets including maritime information-sharing among member states, and emergency financial/economic assistance to those that face economic reprisal or pressure from a non-party state. The mechanism could serve also as a diplomatic platform – whenever a member state encountered the use of paramilitary or military force that violated rights guaranteed under UNCLOS in the South China Sea, the member states would denounce such acts with one voice, and consider the possibility of coordinated response whenever possible.


About Satoru Mori

Satoru Mori is a professor at Hosei University in Japan. He is a former Japanese Foreign Ministry official, and holds a Ph.D. degree from the University of Tokyo. He was also a visiting researcher at Princeton University and George Washington University between 2013 and 2015. His focus is on U.S. strategy in Asia and its implications for East Asian security.