The Chinese-American Dispute over the South China Sea: Recipe for Geopolitical Disaster?

The current military stand-off between the United States and China in the Pacific Ocean may well become one of the defining geopolitical contests of the beginning of the twenty-first century. Since Japan’s surrender in 1945 – and especially following the end of the Cold War – the U.S. Navy took de facto control over the Pacific by establishing a system of free trade and navigation. [1] American naval and military bases were set up in Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea to ensure U.S. political and economic dominance in the region. However, with Beijing increasingly expanding and modernising its naval force, the military and political dynamic currently seems to be shifting in favour of China. This raises the question whether there is any potential for a political/military contest between the U.S. and China.

Image courtesy Melinda Larson, © 2005. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy Melinda Larson, © 2005. Some rights reserved.

Since the United States has strategic as well as commercial interests in the South China Sea, China’s upsurge is potentially problematic. With American influence declining, China will most likely gradually assume a leadership position in the region, in effect re-arranging the balance of power in Southeast Asia. The political pressure on the USA has become especially prevalent during the recent Sino-American dispute concerning sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

This past February, that dispute intensified when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Asia Pacific Daniel Russel testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that China’s maritime claims are inconsistent with international law. [2]

Beijing claims sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands based on historical maps, which display a nine-dash line forming a U-shape around these land features. Other countries such as Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines have also claimed sovereignty over these islands. In contrast to China however, these states have endeavoured to justify their claims by either appealing to the provisions of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or based on the proximity to their coastlines.

The United States considers China’s nine-dash line to be incompatible with UNCLOS, which rejects historically based territorial claims. [3] Yet the US has been unsuccessful so far in curtailing China’s power by appealing to international maritime law. In part, this is due to American hypocrisy: the United States is not even a signatory to UNCLOS but nevertheless has the audacity to critique China for not abiding by the convention’s provisions. Evidently the USA aims to protect its economic and strategic interests in the South China Sea, but China merely perceives this as unwarranted interference.

American political analyst Mark Dankof argues that the United States is interfering in the dispute between China and other nearby nations over the South China Sea because it has a ‘’multifold’’ agenda, including the exploitation of the area’s oil and gas reserves. Dankof states that it is not America’s business to get involved in this political situation and that U.S. is mainly interested in safeguarding its corporate oil and natural gas interests in the region. [4]

If the United States fails to persuade China through the international legal route, this could have serious repercussions for U.S. economic interests in the region. In addition, freedom of navigation is also of significant importance for U.S. commercial interests, especially between Beijing and Washington over the right of American warships to operate in China’s two-hundred mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). [5] Naturally, the United States’ economic interests in the South China Sea play a significant role in its involvement in the political dispute between China and the nearby ASEAN countries. This is because each year, $1.2 trillion worth of U.S. trade passes through the South China Sea. In the event that freedom of navigation is uplifted, the diversion of cargo shipments to other sea routes would become significantly more costly as a result of longer transits.

Furthermore, with the expansion and modernisation of the Chinese naval capabilities it is becoming increasingly difficult for the U.S. to intervene. In addition, the Chinese government is becoming more assertive in defending what they consider to be their territorial waters. For instance, they recently declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over other disputed islands under Japanese jurisdiction in the East China Sea.

Other high-level U.S. officials besides Daniel Russel have confirmed the declining state of stability and security in the South China Sea as well. For instance, Admiral Locklear (Commander U.S. Pacific Command) mentioned that America’s dominance in the Western Pacific will diminish in the long-term due to China’s naval modernisation and expansion. In addition, Frank Kendall (Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology) asserted that later in January that ‘’U.S. military technological superiority is being challenged by China’s military modernisation.’’[6]

Yet, it does not appear that China is keen on using force to take control over the disputed territories as is reflected by the arrangement of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002 between China and ASEAN countries. In addition, an ASEAN-China Joint Working Group on the Implementation of the DOC occurred in Vietnam in April 2010, which shows that China is in fact aiming to resolve this dispute in a diplomatic fashion. Moreover, it seems unlikely that China would want to risk increasing military tensions, as it is ASEAN’s largest trading partner and relies on these countries for a large part of its national trade volume.

Thus, despite the recent political stand-off between China and the United States in the South China Sea it is unlikely that the dispute will escalate. Washington’s appeal to international maritime law as outlined in UNCLOS seems slightly hypocritical and may well serve as more of an excuse to for the U.S. to protect its economic interests in the region. Though the Western media may have portrayed the political situation to be unstable, it is doubtful tensions will be further exacerbated since the Chinese government also has entrenched economic interests here and would have just as much to lose.


[1] G. Dyer, ‘’US v China: is this the new cold war?’’, Financial Times, (20 February 2014), accessed at

[2] ‘’The South China Sea Disputes: Formula for a Paradigm Shift? – Analysis’’, Eurasia Review, (February 19, 2014), accessed at

[3] P. Ponnudurai, ‘’US Draws Own Line Over South China Sea Dispute’’, Radio Free Asia, (9 February 2014), accessed at

[4] ‘’Analyst tells of US hypocrisy, its South China Sea ‘multifold agenda’, Press TV, (18 February 2014), accessed

[5] B. Glaser, ‘’Armed Clash in the South China Sea’’, Council on Foreign Relations, (April 2012), accessed at

[6] C. Thayer, ‘’Tensions Set to Rise in the South China Sea’’, The Diplomat, (19 February 2014), accessed at

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