The recent near-collision between the US warship Decatur and Chinese Luoyang missile destroyer in the South China Sea (SCS) highlights the rising danger of confrontation between the US and China, and the risk posed to other nations in the region. While such close calls may become more common as both sides seek to assert their power, fears of dangerous escalation must be tempered with acknowledgement of the current state of affairs in the disputed waters.
For the Southeast Asian states that have been caught between the two giants over the last few years, one immediate concern is the inadvertent escalation that could result from close encounters of this kind. It is for this reason that, following the Decatur incident, ASEAN defense chiefs raised collective concerns over US and China military activities in the South China Sea at the recent ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus.
At the heart of current US-China tension over the SCS, of course, lays competing interests and ultimately irreconcilable visions for the future of these waters and the broader region.
Beijing has claimed sovereignty over nearly all of the SCS. In recent years, it has sought to assert control by building artificial islands and dual-use infrastructure, such as air strips, roads, hangars, radar facilities, and monitoring stations. In addition, it has expanded its military presence in the area by deploying air, naval, and missile forces. It has sought to enforce its sweeping territorial claims against other claimants, sometimes with the threat of force.
For the US, China’s expansive territorial claims, militarization efforts, and brazenly coercive behavior is evidence that Beijing wants to turn the SCS into a Chinese lake. Many in Washington have long believed that Beijing wants to push the US out of Asia. Under President Donald Trump, the US has resorted to “show of force” presence, and freedom of navigation and overflight operations, in response.
Indeed, the shifting power dynamic in the region with its attendant changes and uncertainties has taken on a new level of complexity as a result of the strain on US-China relations writ large. The trade war and the hardening of attitudes in both Washington and Beijing is increasingly affecting other areas where the two countries interact.
One of the most important indications of the power shift towards China is military power. In recent years, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has closed in on the US military across a broad spectrum of indicators. In the maritime domain, the PLA Navy (PLAN) is already the biggest in the world—surpassing even the US Navy—with more than 300 vessels. Although in general US warships are more advanced than their Chinese counterparts, the sheer disparity in numbers matter. Whereas the US Navy is dispersed around the world defending US global interests, the PLAN can concentrate its forces in Asia and the SCS.
In addition, China has the largest coast guard and maritime militia fleets in the world. Beijing uses them to maintain presence and increase control over the SCS through coercion short of armed conflict, such as by harassing ships from other claimant states. The Chinese “grey zone” tactics are difficult for the US and others to counter because they lack comparable forces. The US does, however, have the advantage of allies and partners in Asia that supplement US naval power, such as Australia, Japan, and Taiwan.
Another important aspect of naval balance in the SCS is China’s modernizing missile forces. The PLA Rocket Force has made notable progress in upgrading missile strike capabilities in recent years. Their deployment of anti-ship ballistic missiles (DF-21 and DF-26), enabled by new reconnaissance and communication platforms, means that the US faces higher costs and risk for a potential regional intervention against China.
The widening gulf in hard power between China and the other SCS claimant states also gives Beijing more leverage to settle disputes on its terms. China favors bilateral negotiations, where it can exert the most leverage against its smaller neighbors, instead of multilateral processes where it may be confronted by groupings of regional states.
In recent years, China’s rising economic influence in states across the region has significantly strengthened its position in its SCS disputes. The rapprochement between China and the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte since 2016 illustrates this. Later this month, Beijing has an opportunity to score a major diplomatic victory during President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Philippines, when the two countries could agree on terms for joint exploitation of hydrocarbon resources under the waters disputed by Beijing and Manila. Such developments will weaken other claimant states, such as Vietnam, putting more pressure on them to come to terms with China.
Beijing’s gains in the SCS, and in Asia more generally, have raised alarms in Washington. But so far, the Trump administration has failed to come up with an effective strategy in response. Instead, in the SCS it has relied exclusively on freedom of navigation and overflight operations to demonstrate US resolve. This approach, however, seems to not be working for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, there is a wide gap between US commitments in Asia on the one hand, and the resources required to maintain them on the other. This not only allows for the shifting of relative balance of power away from the US towards China, it also undermines US credibility across the region and makes it more likely for regional states to bandwagon with China.
If any country, particularly the US, wants to prevent further Chinese gains in the SCS, it will need to substantially increase investment in military capabilities, diplomacy, and economic presence in Asia in the years ahead. Important for the US is the need to come to terms with the higher risk inherent in intensifying a struggle with China. To be competitive, the US needs to have a higher risk tolerance and be willing to impose real cost on China for its aggressive behavior in the SCS. Without will, there is no way.
Moreover, the US will need to negate some of the asymmetric advantages of China’s anti-access/area denial capabilities, such as advanced conventional strike missiles, with a more dispersed, resilient, and mobile force in Asia. US allies and partners could also play an important role in changing China’s strategic calculus by imposing additional costs and risks on Chinese coercion in the SCS.
The US-China competition in the SCS will play out against the larger backdrop of shifting power dynamics and rising competition in Asia. A more contested SCS is thus a distinct and dangerous possibility that should inform policy and military approaches.
Adam Ni is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University.