All China Program Publications Policy Briefs Wilson China Fellowship

Chinese Intentions in the South China Sea

Cover of 'Essays on the Rise of China and Its Implicaitons'

What are China's intentions in the South China Sea? In The 2020-21 Wilson China Fellowship: Essays on the Rise of China and Its Implications, Oriana Skylar Mastro uses a two-part analytical framework to outline why she believes China is trying to establish de facto control over the South China Sea. This means sovereignty over the disputed islands and the ability to dictate the rules of behavior in the surrounding waters. These intentions are detrimental to U.S. and allied interests. Mastro goes on to provide a list of recommended measures the United States can take to prevent Beijing from incrementally advancing its control over the South China Sea including:

  • The United States should expand and increase the tempo of its military operations in the SCS to show that China has not dissuaded the United States by increasing the risk to U.S. forces.
     
  • In the military realm, the United States should prioritize coalition building to ensure a free and open South China Sea.
     
  • The United States should specify that its U.S. alliance commitments extend to protection of countries’ rights within their EEZs.
     
  • To further increase costs to China, the United States could warn Beijing that it may reconsider its neutral position on the sovereignty of the South China Sea disputed islands to support claimants with less expansive and restrictive EEZ claims unless China moderates its EEZ claims and agrees to international law positions on maritime rights.
     
  • The United States should respond immediately to each aggressive act China takes in these waters, regardless of its target. Moreover, the United States should be sure to respond even when a treaty ally is not involved—this would stress that the United States is serious about protecting international norms, regardless of who the transgressors are and what the violation is.
     
  • When China commits an act of aggression or coercion, the Chinese assets or organizations involved should not determine the U.S. response. Instead, the United States should feel free to respond to paramilitary actors as it would to military actors.
     
  • To reconstitute its deterrent, the United States should seek military access to new partner facilities in the SCS. The United States should also improve the quality of other claimants’ maritime reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities and build their defensive capabilities.
     
  • Lastly, the United States should spearhead and prioritize a diplomatic solution to the South China Sea disputes, with or without China. Countries in the region disagree with China’s interpretation of international law. If the rest of the claimants agree about the islands’ sovereignty and the rights granted by those islands and ask the international community to help enforce the agreement, China will have difficulty pushing its claims and pressuring states unilaterally to concede to its demands. If Beijing refuses to follow these rules, Washington should form a coalition to restrict China’s access to technology and related information. Washington should even threaten to expel Beijing from the relevant international regimes.
Read Oriana's essay, "Chinese Intentions on the South China Sea"

Oriana Skylar Mastro

Oriana Skylar Mastro is a Center Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies where she works with APARC and the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) researching Chinese military and security policy.
Oriana Skylar Mastro