Weighing the Consequences of China’s Control over the South China Sea

Last updated October 04, 2016

Over the past two and a half years, China has pursued an increasingly assertive set of policies in the South China Sea, and there is little reason to expect that this will change any time soon. The reasons for this are several, tied first and foremost to the fact that Beijing sees control of the South China Sea as essential to defending what it views as China’s vital “near seas.” Increasingly, it also sees the South China Sea as key to the successful conduct of a host of “far seas” missions in the Indian Ocean and beyond that are becoming more and more important to China’s global posture. We can expect Beijing to proceed with various efforts to achieve a dominant position in the South China Sea, including most likely the militarization of the reefs and islets that it has built up in these waters or will in the near future. Hence, what happens in and around the South China Sea will almost certainly remain a matter of considerable dispute between Beijing and Washington – and between China and a number of regional powers – for some years to come.

Much less clear, however, is what Chinese control over the South China Sea would mean in practical terms for U.S. strategy and military presence in the region. For example, if China were actually able to deny U.S. forces ready access to first-island-chain waters, especially in the South China Sea, what would that mean operationally? What specifically would U.S. military forces no longer be able to do or to do only with greater difficulty and perhaps less effectively? What would the broader political and economic implications be of a China that could dominate the South China Sea, and, by extension, improve its strategic posture and its capacity to act to the north, east, and south of that sea? Would the credibility of America’s forward presence and security guarantees to regional allies and partner states be drawn sharply into question? Would other major powers in the region, such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and even India, not to mention Taiwan, be more inclined to accommodate China on matters of regional security? Of equal importance, what would that mean for the security and cost-effectiveness of the major commercial shipping routes passing through the South China Sea and its environs? Would alternative routes like those slowly opening in the Arctic become more appealing and feasible and, if so, how might that affect energy and commodity prices, including those charged to Beijing? Finding answers to these and related questions is the focus of thius project.

The Project

With the generous support of the Smith Richardson Foundation, IFPA has launched an eighteen-month project to research, analyze, and examine in depth the various consequences for the United States – and, to a somewhat lesser extent, for its regional allies and partner states – of varying degrees of Chinese control over the South China Sea. To get a better feel for the potential scale of the various consequences being studied, the project team will also consider what a hypothetical minimum and maximum Chinese capability level could achieve (or credibly threaten to achieve) in specific geostrategic settings and associated scenarios, and what effect, in turn, a similarly hypothetical (but realistic) American response would have, including the implications of not responding at all. In essence, the team will develop a matrix of realistic responses and counter responses within and around the South China Sea over a specific period of time, enumerating their military, political-diplomatic, and economic implications.

In terms of project activities, the IFPA project team will 1) undertake a thorough review and analysis of primary and secondary source material on South China Sea security dynamics to identify the likely range of Chinese actions and U.S. (and allied/partner country) reactions, as described above; 2) conduct a series of targeted interviews with selected U.S. officials and subject matter experts specializing in Chinese military matters and their implications for U.S. policy; 3) organize a working-group meeting in Washington, D.C., to solicit more in-depth assessments of Chinese options and potential U.S./allied-partner state responses along the maximum-minimum continuum described above; and 4) travel to USPACOM and its component commands, with follow-on travel to selected Asian-Pacific countries, to survey views of key frontline commanders and regional specialists.

The primary product of the study will be a monograph-length report detailing project findings and associated policy recommendations. The monograph will be available as a downloadable PDF and distributed broadly to a targeted policy-relevant audience in the United States and abroad.

Policy Implications

While concern over the security of the South China Sea and China’s provocative actions within it have risen to the top of the diplomatic agenda and the broader public policy debate, precious little serious analysis has been carried out as to what precisely Chinese control over this strategic waterway would mean for U.S. policy. What is needed most urgently, therefore, is not another description of the problem (however thoughtful), but a more operationally minded assessment of what such control would allow Beijing to do by way of military, political-diplomatic, and economic coercion and leverage, and what, in turn, Washington can and should do, in concert with regional allies and partners when possible, to counter such coercion and leverage. This is an important step in the policy planning process regarding the South China Sea question, and it is essential to take it sooner rather than later in order to develop a clearer picture of what would (or would not) be placed at stake as a result of varying degrees of Chinese dominance and what that would require (or not) by way of an American response. Such an understanding, moreover, is a necessary precondition for developing a sound, cost-effective U.S. strategy for responding to (if not deterring altogether) those actions by China that are most likely to undermine regional security and challenge key American interests. In this way, the potential for surprise and miscalculation can also be reduced, the level of U.S. credibility in the region strengthened, and the likelihood of any unintended conflict minimized.