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Has the US already lost the battle for the South China Sea?

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

America has been caught napping by Beijing’s military build-up, maritime militia and island-building campaign, experts say. Island outposts have already given China the ‘foundation of control’ and the PLA fleet could dwarf America’s by 2030.

Before assuming his post as commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip S. Davidson issued a stark warning about Washington’s loosening grip in the fiercely contested South China Sea.

“In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios, short of war with theUnited States” Davidson said during a Senate confirmation hearing ahead of his appointment as the top US military official in the region in May 2018.

For many analysts, the dire assessment was a long-overdue acknowledgement of their concerns. Today, there is a growing sense it did not go far enough.

Washington’s strategic advantage in the waterway, which holds massive untapped oil and gas reserves and through which about a third of global shipping passes, has diminished so much, according to some experts, that it is powerless to prevent Beijing from restricting access during peacetime and could struggle to gain the upper hand even in the event of an outright conflict with Chinese forces.

China, which claims almost the entire waterway, has tipped the balance of power not just through a massive build-up of its navy, they say, but also through the presence of a de facto militia made up of ostensibly non-military vessels and an island-building campaign, the profound strategic value of which has been lost on US policymakers.

Against this backdrop, the threat of tensions boiling over looms large. In its Global Conflict Tracker, the Council on Foreign Relations spotlights the risk of the US being drawn into a China-Philippines conflict due to its defense treaty with Manila, as well as the failure of Beijing and Southeast Asian leaders to solve their disputes through diplomacy, spurring a destabilizing arms build-up.

“The US has lost advantage throughout the spectrum of operations, from low-level interaction against China’s maritime militia to higher-end conflict scenarios,” said James Kraska, a former US Navy commander who lectures at the Naval War College.

“In other words, China has escalation dominance, because it has the power to deter any US turn towards escalation. The US is outmatched in all of the scenarios.”

Since 2012, Beijing has constructed more than two dozen island outposts around disputed reefs and islets in the strategic waterway, where the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have competing territorial claims, allowing it to deploy missile batteries, radar systems and aircraft hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland.

China currently maintains 20 outposts on the Paracel Islands and seven on the Spratlys, according to the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, while also exerting control over the Scarborough Shoal through a continuous coastguard presence.

The Paracel Islands, Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal – all of which are claimed by two or more of China’s regional neighbors – lie within the “nine-dash line” Beijing uses to claim historic sovereignty over 90 per cent of the waters.

An international arbitration tribunal in 2016 found the line to have no basis in international law in a ruling that sided with the Philippines in its territorial dispute with Beijing.

Overlapping claims in the South China Sea


Meanwhile, China’s naval build-up has continued apace. In December, Beijing put its first home-grown aircraft carrier, the Shandong, into service, marking a major milestone towards becoming a major naval power.

The US Naval War College has projected the People’s Liberation Army will have more than 430 ships and 100 submarines by 2030, potentially double the size of the US fleet.

“The biggest issue of control is maritime awareness,” said Oriana Mastro, an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University.

“Before China can control the airspace and the water, they have to know what’s there. So when you look at these islands and China says, ‘don’t worry it’s just a bunch of radars and sensors’, for someone who is more military-minded, that is the foundation of control – to be able to identify who is doing what and where.”

Washington, which has no claims in the South China Sea, has accused Beijing of militarizing the waterway and making unfounded territorial claims. It insists the waters must remain “free and open” in accordance with international law.

The US Navy regularly sails vessels through the waters as part of “freedom of navigation” operations (FONOPs) it says are intended to challenge Beijing’s claims and preserve access for all countries. Beijing has accused Washington of violating its sovereignty and escalating regional tensions with its patrols.

Tong Zhao, a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, said Beijing had secured some “initial advantages” in a long-term competition that had only just begun.

“China’s capability to mass produce modern naval vessels and advanced coastguard ships at a faster rate than anyone else also contributes to Beijing’s confidence that it can gradually shift the military balance in this region to its favor,” said Zhao.

But Zhao stressed that China’s advantages were not set in stone, noting that Washington had the resources to develop powerful capabilities such as new medium- and intermediate-range missiles.

“With support from its allies, many of whom are increasingly worried about China’s military domination, the United States can use such new capabilities to threaten the operation of PLA military vessels and aircraft and thus seriously challenge any military domination that China may seek to establish,” he said.

Other Chinese commentators have attempted to downplay Beijing’s rising dominance altogether.

“The US, in particular, is well aware of the fact that China cannot control the South China Sea,” said Hu Bo, director of the Centre for Maritime Strategy Studies at Peking University, in an analysis published last year by the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative.

“Yet, it continues to direct domestic and international attention to such a possibility with various policies,” Hu Bo added.

Despite US efforts to push back against Beijing, many analysts believe Washington has been slow to take the prospect of Chinese control of the waterway seriously, in particular neglecting the military and strategic significance of its artificial islands.

“These bases would likely prove quite useful in the event of armed conflict between the United States and China,” said Zachary Haver, a Washington-based China analyst.

The mistaken perception that the islands were of little practical use and could be easily destroyed during a conflict because of their isolated location had fueled complacency, said Greg Poling, a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“On day one of a conflict, they allow China to control the South China Sea,” said Poling, who recently published a widely shared essay on the War on The Rocks website warning against the “dangerously wrong” conventional wisdom about the man-made features.

“Because of the islands, the Chinese are positioned in a way that lets them dominate the South China Sea, and the Americans are not.“

The Americans would be in a position of fighting into the South China Sea.

“It is irresponsible of US planners to talk about these [islands] like they are just sitting ducks or just target practice when they’re definitely not,” said Poling, while stressing his view that China would seek to avoid any military conflict with the US.

The Indo-Pacific Command did not respond to a request for comment.

Many analysts believe US forces would struggle to destroy the outposts at an “acceptable cost”, requiring massive numbers of missiles and bombs and the diversion of aircraft and vessels needed to fight elsewhere, given that any major confrontation would be likely to occur during a broader conflict in Northeast Asia, possibly involving Japan or Taiwan.

With the US lacking any nearby military facilities that could provide ground fire or immediate air cover, its vessels would be vulnerable to China’s advanced missile arsenal, which is widely considered among the most sophisticated on earth.

A patrol by the People's Liberation Army on Woody Island, in the Paracel Archipelago

“The nature of warfare is changing rapidly with the development of drones, hypersonic weapons and other new missile capabilities,” said Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.

“It is not easy to foresee how these may affect the utility of fixed island bases. But already [China’s] existing missile technology would make the approaches to the Western Pacific dangerous for US aircraft carriers and other surface vessels.”

Caught off guard

James Holmes, a former US Navy officer who teaches at the Naval War College, said policymakers had been caught off guard by China’s creeping control of the waterway due to its use of ostensibly non-military vessels such as fishing boats as a de facto maritime militia.

“In 2012, after Scarborough Shoal, I took to including a slide in my South China Sea presentations depicting the fishing fleet as the vanguard of Chinese sea power. It was a laugh line that year and for some time after,” said Holmes, referring to how China took control of the shoal after a prolonged stand-off with the Philippines.

“You don’t get laughs any more. But by the time we got serious about the maritime militia and [the Chinese coastguard], Beijing had accomplished most of what it wanted.”

Washington’s waning dominance has not gone unnoticed among Southeast Asian claimants also at loggerheads with Beijing. Nearly half of the citizens of Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) have little or no confidence in the US to provide regional security, according to the State of Southeast Asia: 2020 Survey carried out by the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

More than three-quarters of respondents believed US engagement in the region had declined under the Trump administration.

At the same time, 54 per cent said they would choose the US if forced to align themselves with either Washington or Beijing, although responses varied considerably by country, with majorities in Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Brunei, Laos, Malaysia and Myanmar favoring Beijing.

“While there are concerns that the US may be losing interest or disengaging from the region, there’s also concern in the region about China’s behavior and long-term strategic intention,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “Therefore regional countries still look forward to counting on the US in the South China Sea.”

Even if the balance has tipped in favor of Beijing, policy analysts in the US and its allies caution against fatalism.

“Beijing will not get its way through international custom as long as navies demonstrate on behalf of freedom of the sea,” said Holmes, who argues the competition is not yet lost.

But although the Trump administration appears to have ramped up the frequency of FONOPs, analysts caution against overplaying their impact.

“There have been far too many wild statements from American politicians about the FONOPS being a way to ‘push back’ against China,” said Bill Hayton, a South China Sea expert at Chatham House in London. “FONOPS are a means of asserting, and thereby maintaining, the law of the sea. They aren’t intended to diminish the power of China’s artificial island bases.”

There is wide agreement that Washington’s ability to convince allies and partners to join any effort to push back against Chinese control will be key to the future of the waterway.

Some suggest these efforts need to include establishing a regular US military presence in Southeast Asia, which would alleviate operational limitations arising from its dependence on far-flung bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam.

But such a base appears an unlikely prospect at present, as even Washington’s closest Southeast Asian ally, the Philippines, moves closer to Beijing under populist leader Rodrigo Duterte.

“Unlike the Middle East, in Southeast Asia the US can’t rely on local shore bases from which to project power. Vietnam won’t allow it – despite the growing illusions about this in Washington – and nor will the current Philippine government,” said Hayton.

“However, all Southeast Asian governments are concerned about China’s bullying behavior and will continue to facilitate the presence of the US and other navies in the region as a counterbalance.”

In the absence of a major new military footprint in the region, Washington could settle for boosting the fighting capabilities of its allies, or forging closer relations with non-traditional partners, although this year’s US presidential election casts some uncertainty over the direction of future policy.

“Korea, Australia and the Philippines and strategic partnerships with India and Vietnam should all be leveraged, and the US should integrate and operate with their forces and provide them with higher-end capabilities,” said the Naval War College’s Kraska.

Looming large in any discussion of what Washington might do next, however, are questions about the Trump administration’s priorities.

Looming large in any discussion of what Washington might do next, however, are questions about the Trump administration’s priorities.

“You’d think this would be an issue that Trump would love,” said Mastro. “It’s one that has a military answer, it’s one in which China is not abiding by the rules of the game, and pushing the US around. You’d think this was an issue that has Trump written all over it but for whatever reason, Trump’s priorities are elsewhere.”

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