APARC Research - Policy Perspectives on the South China Sea

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) transits the South China Sea with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship JS Izumo (DDH 183) in May 2017.

Policy Perspectives on the South China Sea

Exploring strategies and responses to the ongoing disputes in the region

Navigating troubled waters

The Southeast Asian nations involved in the complex disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea have failed to settle their own differences with one another. Nor has Washington done much to check Beijing’s concerted drive to occupy, enlarge, and militarize key land features in the sea. An APARC policy-research project involving multiple formats and partners explores what regional stakeholders and the United States can and should do about the situation in the strategic and disputed waterway.

Research Focus

For anyone interested in Southeast Asia and its interactions with China, the intractable ongoing imbroglio in the South China Sea (SCS) is attractive in scholarly and policy terms. Of the seven different governments that are more or less directly involved in this cluster of disputes, five are Southeast Asian:  Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam—plus China and Taiwan. The Southeast Asians’ variously overlapping claims to sovereignty and maritime rights, however, pale in size when compared with the near-totality of the SCS that falls within China’s vague but adamantly advanced “nine-dash line.” (Taiwan accepts this “Chinese” claim but, in effect, attaches it to Taipei not Beijing.) Nor has any Southeast Asian state implemented its claim more assertively and coercively than China has.
By means of war, seizure, augmentation, and construction, China has transformed its platforms in the SCS into military assets—air and naval bases suitable for launching air and sea weapons in combat. By May 2018, mainly by sucking up sand from the seafloor for deposit on existing land features, Beijing had generated hard, dry surfaces estimated to total 3,200 acres.
What is to be done? The Southeast Asian claimants all belong to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But ASEAN is divided. Non-claimant Cambodia, coopted by China into becoming its client state, vetoes ASEAN statements on the SCS that would displease Beijing. The Southeast Asian claimants are another part of the problem insofar as they have failed to settle their own differences, which could have eased tensions and might have allowed them to close ranks and present a united front in discussions with China. This notwithstanding the geographic location of the South China Sea as the virtual “heartwater” of Southeast Asia.
What if anything should the United States do—or not do? In June 2018 in Singapore, Secretary of Defense James Mattis described China’s placement of “weapons systems” in the South China sea as “tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion.” But beyond sending U.S. warships and planes through and over the SCS from time to time in “Freedom of Navigation Operations,” Washington has done little to check Beijing’s incremental creation of faits accomplis—facts on the water furthering Chinese control. According to domestic Chinese law, the SCS is already part of Hainan province. 
The ongoing priority attention that APARC’s Southeast Asia Program (SeAP) has been paying to these questions has involved different formats and partners. In October 2017, jointly with APARC’s US-Asia Security Initiative, SeAP organized a workshop on “ASEAN @ 50, Southeast Asia @ Risk: What Should Be Done?” The event was hosted by the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (Honolulu) and partnered with the Australian National University’s Strategic Defence Studies Centre (Canberra) and the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (Singapore). Several of the policy recommendations submitted and discussed at the workshop related directly or indirectly to the South China Sea.
SeAP has also sponsored a series of presentations at Stanford by experts on or with references to the situation in the SCS and related policy issues. Examples in 2016-18 included remarks by analysts and practitioners from Australia, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, the United States, and Vietnam. Meanwhile SeAP director Don Emmerson has written pieces, made remarks, served as interviewer or interviewee, and done field research on SCS in various journals, conferences, meetings, and places. Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Washington, DC were among his relevant speaking and research sites in the same period. Again in Washington, DC, in July 2018, he took part in the Seventh Annual South China Sea Conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and in a second CSIS working group meeting to brainstorm the chances of shared access to hydrocarbons in the SCS.

Lead Researcher


Donald K. Emmerson

Shorenstein APARC Southeast Asia Program Director

Donald K. Emmerson

Shorenstein APARC Southeast Asia Program Director
Senior Fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Emeritus


Journal of Democracy, April 2018
Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2017
Chapter in The South China Sea Disputes: Flashpoints, Turning Points and Trajectories, by Yang Razali Kassim (ed.),
World Scientific Publishing Company, March 2017
TRaNS: Trans-Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia, January 2017


Product of the CSIS Expert Working Group on the South China Sea, October 2018
[Donald K. Emmerson is a member of the group]
APARC website and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), June 2018
Policy brief and recommendations from the October 2017 workshop by the same name,
published January 2018
PacNet and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/ CSIS, November 2017
Product of the CSIS Expert Working Group on the South China Sea, November 2017
[Donald K. Emmerson is a member of the group]
YaleGlobal Online, June 2017
The Diplomat, April 2017
U.S.-Southeast Asia Relations
In President Trump’s Asia Inbox, an APARC policy brief, February 2017
The Diplomat, May 2016
The Asan Forum, April 2016
YaleGlobal Online, February 2016
CSIS blog, July 2015