Balancing China’s Power in the South China Sea

By Jolen Martinez

            China’s expansion in the South China Sea represents the dawning of a new era of international relations within the region. Subsequently, this expansion has replaced China’s idealistic struggle for consolidation and development in the 20th century with a new conflict along strictly realist terms. The South China Sea offers resources, strategic advantage, and a platform from which China can expand its sphere of influence. To the other countries that share a coast with it, the sea offers the same resources that China vies for and is a crucial natural separation from Beijing’s reach. As a result, the United States must work to reduce the possibility of conflict among the nations in South East Asia and maintain a sustainable balance of power by retaining crucial alliances, establishing international order, and protecting national sovereignty against China’s expansion.

            The South China Sea lies at the center of maritime Eurasia, surrounded by independent countries which are all competing for the region’s lucrative resources. The sea opens through several key straits along Indonesia and the Philippines that naturally direct trade between key nodes at the edges of the sea.  At the center of the issue is China’s demand that the international community recognize Chinese sovereignty over the “nine-dash-line”, a region of the sea that is based on China’s historical claim and domestic law (Glaser 3). However, this demarcation runs contrary to the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea Treaty (UCLOS) which only allocates a stretch of 200 miles into any body of water, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China’s refusal to abide by the international designation of ocean developmental zones has led it to confront the United States’ and other nations’ military operations conducted in what it claims is its sea zone. Additionally, vast deposits of natural gas have led nations surrounding the South China Sea to start drilling in disputed waters, increasing the incentive for defection from negotiations on the issue.

            Cooperation is particularly difficult due to the presence of many different actors who all want to partake in the sea grab. These regional actors  include China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia -- the United States, as a global power, also remains important (Kaplan 6). However, the main actors hinge upon a divide between the two global powers, China and the United States, and their respective spheres of influence.  The South East Asian countries are mostly aligned in their stance against Chinese encroachment, and have thus aligned themselves the under United States’ influence and protection. For example, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have all requested US military presence in the past and are dependent on American support in the event of a military confrontation with the Chinese navy. Economically, all the aforementioned nations have seen rapid growth and seek the sea’s supply of energy resources to sustain it.

            China, however, seeks more than drilling rights and convenient access to trade nodes. In Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing, Hugh White purports that China is in the search for a new empire, seeking a hegemonic stance in South East Asia by catching other nations in its sphere of influence. China has recently faced a political crisis of identity and stability and Xi Jinping is using the South China Sea as a nationalist example of China’s self-determination by demarcating its own borders in opposition to the West (Babones 2016). The Center for Strategic and International Studies assigns China’s interests to a blend of security issues, economic development demands, and political image. The United States’ interests are predicated on the protection of a balance of power and the maintenance of the status quo. In her article, Armed Clash in the South China Sea, Bonnie S. Glaser argues that the US has great interest in upholding international maritime law and Law of the Seaby denying China’s nine-dash-line and establishing international precedent for institutional conflict resolution. Additionally, the US must secure its alliances, otherwise nations will lose confidence in its protection and embark on their own arms races or fall into China’s sphere of influence. Finally, the US has important business interests in the stability of the region with corporations such as Exxon Mobile invested in drilling activities (Glaser 4). Around 1.2 trillion of the 5.3 trillion dollars that flows through the South China Sea annually is the product of US trade.  

            The national interests involved in the conflict surrounding the South China Sea have led to a recent development of interactions between the countries invested in the crisis. The South East Asian alignment to the US has seen a break in the ranks. Filipino president Duterte has made remarks regarding shifting his country’s support to China in light of recent disputes regarding the execution of thousands of accused “drug dealers.” However, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia have all affirmed their alliances with the United States. China, meanwhile, has attempted to convey its resolve on the issue by “paying for its power” within the ocean through the construction of artificial islands and the upgrade of its navy. The United States has responded by maintaining military outposts in the Philippines and Vietnam. To further express its commitment to its allies, the US has warned China that any attack on the South East Asian nations would be a brink for escalation. As Robert D. Kaplan claims, the South China Sea has become the stage for realism in the form of technocratic, zero-sum interactions at the service of national interest with countries vying for advantages and constantly seeking strategic and military advancement, leading to a downward spiraling security dilemma (Kaplan 10). However, war is far from inevitable and common goals of stability and prosperity can traverse the commitment problems aforementioned.

            The United States’ role in the South China Sea should be to preserve the balance of power. Instead of triggering further escalation of the eminent arms race, the US should maintain its current naval power and coordinate multilateral action in response to further Chinese aggression by improving American allies’ capabilities. Contrary to Kaplan’s zero-sum view on the matter, the South China Sea can be a space for collaborative projects in the fields of environmental protection, scientific research, and humanitarian aid (Glaser 8). President Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon’s assertion that there will be a war with China in the next 10 years assumes a bargaining breakdown that is completely avoidable. The United States will need to simultaneously uphold the rule of law in the UNCLOS agreement and divide the disputed energy resources within the sea among the involved nations in an attempt to eliminate the zero-sum nature of the current crisis. Conveying the US’ commitments and affirming its interests avoids informational issues, prevents sudden conflict, and mitigates potential escalation.


Babones, Salvatore
   2016   “Why China cares about the South China Sea: China's territorial claims are driven by a sense of historical victimization”, Aljazeera,, 11022017


BBC News
   2017   “South China Sea: China media warn US over 'confrontation'”, BBC,   ,


Haas, Benjamin
   2017   “Steve Bannon: ‘We’re Going to War in the South China Sea, no Doubt”, The Guardian, 1      February 2017  war-south-china-sea-no-doubt


Hao, Su
   2011   “China’s Positions and Interests in the South China Sea: A Rational Choices in its Cooperative Policies”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1-13


Kaplan, Robert D.
    2011   “The South China Sea Is the Future of Conflict: The 21st century's defining battleground is going to be on water”, Foreign Policy, 11022017