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South China Sea Disputes: Strategic Implications and Perspectives on Conflict Resolution

(Dr Subhash Kapila was invited to an International Workshop on the South China Sea “The Sovereignty Over Paracel and Spratly Archipelago: Historical and Legal Aspects” at the Pham Van Dong University, Vietnam, April 27&28, 2013. The Paper below was presented at this International Workshop)

Paper No. 5480                                                              Dated 03-May-2013

By Dr Subhash Kapila

Introductory Observations

“Just as German soil constituted the military frontline of the Cold War, the waters of the South China Sea may constitute the military frontline of the coming decades. Worldwide multipolarity is already a feature of diplomacy and economics, but the South China Sea could show as what multipolarity in a military sense actually looks like”—Robert Kaplan, Noted American Author on Strategic Affairs

“In  essence it is an indirect face-off between China and the United States on the South China Sea”---General Li Qing long, Deputy Secretary, China Council for National Security Policy Studies

“If these countries do not want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sound of cannons. It may be the only way for the dispute on the sea to be resolved”----Global Times, State Run Newspaper, China, Editorial, November 2011.

 Asia Pacific security and stability in the 21st Century stands greatly endangered due to China’s oversized unwarranted military build-up in the absence of any credible threats to China’s security. China’s aspirations to emerge as a strategic co-equal of the United States both in the global power-play and strategic predominance in the Asia Pacific have provided the impulses for the same.

Consequently, the re-emergence of the South China Sea disputes with escalated explosive contours due to China’s aggressive brinkmanship, use of military force and political coercion against China’s relatively smaller and militarily weaker South East Asian nations whose sovereignty China has challenged, needs to be seen as a logical outcome.

The South China Sea disputes between China and its South East Asian neighbours which has been festering for decades assumed conflictual contours since 2008-2009 and after China declared it as a ‘core interest’ for China and on which it would be ready to go to war to defend its self-proclaimed sovereignty. China’s such assertions should not surprise the international community as it is very much in keeping with China’s posturings and its marked propensity to resort to conflict to resolve territorial disputes rather than by conflict resolution initiatives.

The South China Sea disputes can no longer be viewed as a China versus ASEAN neighbours conflict over contested claims over the South China Sea on which China asserts that it has historical sovereignty over the entire South China Sea and the Spratly and Paracel Islands and other land-forms that dot the Sea.

The South China Sea disputes, to China’s dismay, have now acquired international dimensions, which putting aside judgemental pronouncements on sovereignty of rival claimants, have now graduated to a higher plane and principles of bringing to the fore the crucial global concerns on the “defence of the global commons”; “freedom of the high seas”; and “unrestricted use of international waterways”. So the disputes have now moved from a China versus ASEAN conflict to China versus United States plus global community who are vital stakeholders in the South China Sea as an international waterway for unrestricted use.

In geostrategic terms the South China Sea is not an “Inland Sea of China”. “In strategic and military terms the South China Sea is in a key position that enables control not only over South East Asia but over the entire realm of South and East Asia”.

With such strategic significance the entire Western Pacific maritime expanse acquires intense power-play contours between the United States and China. The Western Pacific which includes the South China Sea stood dominated by the United States so far. The United States has not indicated any intentions to abdicate this strategic dominance.

The Western Pacific is also crucial for China if it needs to breakout from the militarily boxed-in blueprint of United States maritime predominance. The South China Sea conflicts arise from this strategic rivalry.

China’s aggressive brinkmanship in the South China Sea conflicts has basically arisen from two decades of strategic inattentiveness in the Western Pacific arising from its military distractions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. This facilitated a massive Chinese naval build up without any checkmating by the United States. It is this Chinese military and naval build-up which is being played out in the South China Sea conflicts today

United States “Risk Aversion” and “China-Hedging Strategy” are additional contributory factors which presumably led China to believe that its aggressive pushes in the South China Sea would not be challenged by the United States.

China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea are not exclusively focused on garnering the vast reserves of hydro-carbons that lay embedded in the South China Sea beds. China has significant strategic aims in escalating South China Sea conflicts which must be understood against the backdrop of China’s Grand Strategy.

China’s Grand Strategy has two foremost aims which drive its South China Sea strategy, namely,(1) The United States be impelled to exit from East Asia and the Western Pacific by inducing strategic and political fatigue or strategic passivity by aggressive brinkmanship in all the Seas of Western Pacific.(2) China’s naval power be built up to levels which could significantly narrow the differentials with US naval supremacy in the Western Pacific. The wider underlying aim being to create force projection capabilities not only along China’s littoral but also into the Indian Ocean.

China’s Grand Strategy in the South China Sea revolves around three pillars and these are: (1)Internationalisation of the South China Sea disputes be pre-empted/ prevented/impeded at all costs (2) ASEAN unity be divided so that regionalisation of the dispute is similarly prevented. (3) Simmering of the South China Sea disputes be kept at pressure levels that would not prompt a direct military intervention by the United States, and yet serves as a strategic pressure point .

Lurking in this Chinese brinkmanship are the dangers of miscalculation and over-reach by China in its strategic moves in the South China Sea conflicts and thereby stoking armed hostilities. Evidently at some stage the United States would have to intervene to defend its strategic dominance in the Asia Pacific and defend the security of its military Allies and its new strategic relationships in the region.

This is the strategic framework in which the South China Sea conflicts must be viewed in the second decade of the 21st Century. Economics and energy security seem to be secondary now. Strategic determinants will now overshadow the contested questions of legality and sovereignty of the South China Sea region.

This Paper intends to examine the strategic implications arising out of the South China Sea conflicts at the global level and at the regional level

 Normally the regional strategic implications should have been examined first and then their impact on the global power-play. The global strategic implications are being discussed first as it is felt for the very good reason that the global strategic implications today overshadow the regional strategic implications and they are getting subsumed in the former.

South China Sea Disputes: The Global Strategic Implications

South China Sea disputes have today ceased to be a regional concern of East Asia, the Western Pacific and the Asia Pacific. The chain of developments in the South China Sea conflict increasingly point towards a growing involvement of the extra-regional and international stake holders in the dynamics of these disputes.

Regional disunity in south East Asia and lack of in-region military capabilities to impose even minimal deterrence on Chinese aggressive moves in the South China Sea conflicts opens the way for international stakeholders in the South China Sea region to step-in on the side of the China beleaguered nations. United States is the countervailing power and Japan and India can be assessed as counterweights that add ballast to United States countervailing power in the Asia Pacific to checkmate China’s unrestrained brinkmanship

 Russia as an Asia Pacific power also needs to be co-opted towards this end.Russia has already declared its strategic pivot to Asia Pacific and the timing and intentions are open for debate.

At play in the South China Sea conflict is not only the United States undisguised moves of containment of China but also the first tentative moves by Japan and India towards politically checkmating China , if not militarily.

China’s aggressive brinkmanship and use of force in the South China Sea conflicts have further reinforced Asian concerns about Chinese military power. In Asian capitals, the perception has taken root that China is not a responsible stakeholder in Asian security and stability.

This is a vast subject and hence only the more salient global strategic implications generated by escalation of South China Sea disputes are being selected for mention. These are as follows

  • South China Sea Conflicts Induce Asian Polarisation & Stimulates a New Balance of Power Architecture in Asia Pacific
  • South China Sea Conflict Major Spin-off: Western Pacific is No Longer ‘Pacific’
  • Global Responses to China’s Escalated Brinkmanship on South China Sea Disputes
  • The Most Significant Strategic Implication: China Generates a New Cold War in Asia Pacific

South China Sea Conflicts Induce Asian Polarisation & Stimulates a Now Balance of Power Architecture in Asia Pacific

Asia’s strategic polarisation today stands stimulated by China’s conflictual and adversarial stances on the South China Sea dispute. Taking off from this Asian polarisation is the emergence of new ‘balance of power’ architectures in the Asia Pacific.

“China’s strategic ambitions on the rise of a Sino-centric Asia seem foredoomed as a contemporaneous strategic review of the Asian security environment suggests. China’s switch from a Grand Strategy relying on Soft power’ to exercise of ‘hard power’ seems to have generated a strategic polarisation of the Asia Pacific. The Chinese switch in its Grand Strategy seems to have generated perception of a China Threat engulfing the Asia Pacific.”

China’s use of military aggression, military and political coercion on the South China Sea conflicts against its ASEAN neighbours who made concerted efforts for decades to integrate China in ASEAN dialogue mechanisms, not only betrayed their trust but also in the process has dented China’s credibility as a responsible and peace-loving neighbour of ASEAN.

Historically, the Asia Pacific has witnessed different ‘balance of power’ templates in play at various times. However United States military interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s and in Afghanistan and Iraq during the 2000s upset the existing ‘balance of power’ in the region. The ensuing strategic vacuum led to China’s meteoric military build-up without any checkmating by the United States.

The South China Sea conflicts erupting in the period post-2009 and their strategic impact nudged the United States back to a strategic pivot to Asia Pacific and restoring the balance sought to be upset by China.

In 2013, the Asia Pacific is witnessing the emergence of new ‘balance of power’ architecture in the Asia Pacific. Broadly, the United States formulation to this end incorporates the reinforcement of its existing military alliance structure in North East Asia based on Japan, South Korea and the Philippines; remedying absence of US security linkages on the South China Sea littoral states by seeking strategic relationships with Vietnam and Indonesia and evolving a vital strategic partnership with India., besides strategic openings to Myanmar.

“Concluding it can be stated that what United States could not achieve in all the preceding years in terms of strategic polarisation of the Asia Pacific against a probable China Threat, the aggressive policies of China in the first flush of impatience to manifest her new-found military power in Asia seems to have generated a noticeable strategic polarisation in the Asia Pacific, to the consequent disadvantage of China.”

South China Sea Conflict Major Spin-Off: Western Pacific is no Longer ‘Pacific’

In the Western Pacific intersect most intensely the strategic interests and power tussle between the United States and China. Also intersecting within the overall framework are the regional power rivalries between China and Japan and between China and Vietnam and the Philippines on the South China Sea disputes. Increasingly the United States would tend to get drawn in regional disputes with China. The United States would not be allowed the luxury of ‘strategic detachment’ from the situation prevailing in the Western Pacific security environment. It would then run the risk of witnessing the unravelling of its security architecture in the region. The United States would ultimately have to resort to a containment strategy against China in the Western Pacific.

 Central to any checkmating or containment strategy of China by the United States is “The First Island Chain”, a strategic chain of islands running virtually parallel to the East Asia littoral on the Western Pacific.

The strategic significance for the United States of this geographical configuration of the Western Pacific emerges from the following military considerations (1)The United States is provided both an outer perimeter of defence of Mainland United States and a springboard in close proximity to China for a military intervention, (2)With a combination of geographical proximity to Mainland China and the military deployments of United States and its Allies, this permits a virtual hemming in of China in military terms. (3) In this island chain configuration only a few corridors exist for the Chinese Navy to breakout into the wider Pacific Ocean

More significantly are the Chinese claims to islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea. These disputed islands in China’s possession would provide China with bases for deployment of its military assets as part of its ‘Anti-Access’ strategies against US naval and air power intervention.

The Western Pacific is destined to be an explosive flashpoint between China and the United States where the first shots between China and the United States may be fired unless wiser counsels prevail on China to step back from its escalatory brinkmanship on the South China Sea conflicts.

Global Responses to China’s Escalated Brinkmanship on South China Sea Disputes

The global responses on China’s escalated brinkmanship on the South China Sea dispute are best illustrated from a reading of speeches given at the Shangri-La Dialogue June 2012 deliberations at Singapore. The common thread running through these speeches were that the global community and major powers were committed to the security of the “global commons” and to the “freedom of the high seas” and that no country had a right to declare them as national territories. The United States, UK, and the new French Foreign Minister emphasised that all of them stood committed to the security and stability of South East Asia.

South China Sea disputes are therefore no longer regional disputes and the international concern on China’s attempts to impose its sovereignty over the entire Sea and its land-forms and the implicit commitment to the security and stability of South East Asia should send appropriate signals to China. Fearful of such responses China’s high level dignitaries stayed away this time.

The Most Significant Strategic Implication: China Generates a New Cold War in Asia Pacific

China’s generating a second Cold War in the Asia Pacific was a topic addressed by me as early as April 2001 in a Paper entitled “Is China Generating a Second Cold War in Asia: Policy Choices for United States”.

The pertinent observations that were made were: “China perceives the United States as the Number One Threat Projection and has been doing this for some time. ‘’Further that “This has led to US-China relations now bordering on volatility and uncertainty and do we see the beginning of a Cold War? The suspicions, the rhetoric and the brinkmanship resorted to by China in actions against the United States are reminiscent of the approaching stages of the First Cold War.”

Once again in 2008 in another Paper “China’s Escalating Military Power: Global and Regional Implications” I observed that “The present state of relations between China and the United States are acquiring the contours of a Cold War. But this Cold War unlike the first Cold War has all the chances of being a ‘Hot War’ between United States and China over a host of conflictual flashpoints stretching right across Asia and other strategic issues.”

In 2013 the picture is even grimmer as China close to peaking of its military build-up is restless and agitated over the American strategic pivot to Asia and crafting new balance of power in the Asia Pacific. Escalation of the South China Sea conflicts is the most potent challenge China can throw against the United States.

South China Sea Disputes: The Regional Strategic Implications

Regional disputes/ confrontations/ conflicts do not occur in a vacuum. They emerge from the contextual security environment that existed, currently exists and is likely to exist in the foreseeable future. Hence the South China Sea disputes need to be viewed in the overall security environment of Asia in the 21st Century. Perceptions play an important role both in the shaping of the contextual security environment and the scope and leeway it offers to prospective regional destabilisers and aggressive revisionist powers.

In the South China Sea disputes China’s aggressiveness and brinkmanship on the issue needs to be assessed from China’s perceptions of United States commitment to ASEAN security and stability and US ambiguities that China can exploit to further its strategic ends of gaining full control over the entire South China Sea region. China could not care less for ASEAN’S strategic sensitivities conscious that the ASEAN countries even collectively cannot impose deterrence on China’s push into the South China Sea.

In terms of regional strategic implications stirred by China’s aggressive pushes against ASEAN countries, once again some selected points of salience need to be highlighted from an overall perspective and these are as follows:

·         ASEAN Countries Prodded into Arms Build-up/Arms Race

·         China’s Conflictual Confrontation on South China Sea Generates Japan and India’s

 Fast Track Military Build-up

·         ASEAN Collective Unity: The Myth Shattered by China

ASEAN Countries Arms Build-up/Arms Race Commences

 Rather belatedly, the ASEAN Countries woke up to the strategic reality that The China Threat was a reality and since the Chinese threat was basically maritime, ASEAN countries are now concentrating on building up the deterrent capacities of their Navies and maritime surveillance.

ASEAN countries before the escalation by China of the South China Sea conflict can be said to have been complacent in even building up the minimal naval and air capabilities to impose some sort of deterrence on China.

In this connection the ASEAN countries whether claimants in the South China Sea conflicts or non-claimants, both have to band together for the simple reason that South East Asian security and stability is not divisible. Regional security cooperation is a desirable goal for ASEAN as China emerges stronger and aggressive.

The significant implication that needs to be noted here is that not only the ASEAN countries are upgrading their military capabilities but those other major powers having a stake in South China Sea security and stability may also join-in in capacity building of ASEAN’s deterrence capabilities.

China’s Conflictual Confrontation on South China Sea Generates Japan and India’s Fast Track Military build-up

China’s conflictual stances are not limited only to the South China Sea conflicts as China is similarly involved in territorial disputes and military stand-offs with Japan and India also. China’s intense brinkmanship on the South China Sea conflicts has fortuitously given a wake-up call to Japan and India to review their own deterrence capabilities against a militarily rising China.

Japan and India with sizeable stakes in Asian security should have realised years back that both singly and jointly they needed to provide an Asian counterweight to China’s burgeoning military power. Japan and India both have been subjected to Chinese aggression and brinkmanship on their territorial disputes with China.

 Japan has taken the first tentative steps towards greater self-reliance in its defence and deterrent postures against China. China’ brinkmanship on the Senkaku Islands would have further convinced that a military capability independent of the United States needs to be created. China’s full control of the South China Sea could result in the economic and strategic strangulation of Japan, and Japan can be expected to forestall that eventuality.

Japan so far had been constrained by the United States in adopting assertive policies towards China. Japan in its approaches to China had to subsume its own national security interests to US strategic sensitivities on China. Post-South China Sea conflicts and extension of conflicts to East China Sea has forced Japan not only to re-examine its Peace Constitution but also building up deterrent military capabilities against China

India finally is seeing through the Chinese game of non-resolution of the India-Occupied Tibet boundary dispute and the strategic encirclement by China of India. India has also woken up to the unfolding Chinese naval challenge materialising against it in the Indian Ocean. From that perspective, India now emerges as a concerned stakeholder in South China Sea security and stability.

Both India and Japan have lately evinced a more active interest in the South China Sea conflict and have a strategic congruence on the ‘Defence of the Global Commons’. Expectedly, the military build-ups in Japan and India would provide existential counterweights against China at the two ends of the South China Sea.

This should be a source of comfort to the ASEAN countries and induce them to be no longer fence sitters in relation to China.

ASEAN Collective Unity: The Myth Shattered by China

China has stood emboldened to enhanced brinkmanship on the South China Sea conflict conscious of the fact that there was no collective unity within ASEAN to forge and present a collective united front against China’s push into the South China Sea.

ASEAN unity stood shattered by China when in the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh in June 2012, with Cambodia in the chair obstructed and succeeded in the non-issue of the ASEAN Joint Communique which would have been highly critical of China’s conflictual stances on the South China Sea.

China can be expected to pursue its strategy of dividing ASEAN countries with intensified vigour as China comes under more and more international pressures for conflict resolution on the South China Sea disputes

 ASEAN collective unity against China on territorial disputes would continue as an unachievable myth because some ASEAN countries are prone to be lured away by China with massive financial inducements. Some of the non-claimant ASEAN nations have divergences on viewing China with the claimant States which further add to ASEAN disunity and greatly comfiting China.

ASEAN as the prominent regional grouping of South East Asia stands the dangers of unravelling as a regional grouping if some of its members succumb to China’s strategy of dividing ASEAN.

It should not be forgotten that ASEAN stood doubly betrayed by China for abusing the trust that ASEAN reposed in facilitating China’s inclusiveness in various dialogue forums of ASEAN and thereby hoping that China in in relation to ASEAN would emerge as a responsible partner, and secondly by imposing conflict and aggression against ASEAN nations on the South China Sea conflict.

South China Sea Disputes: Perspectives on Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution processes are said to revolve around three main imperatives, namely: (1) De-escalation of Escalation Behaviour (2) Change in Attitudes/ Approaches to the Conflict, and (3) Transforming the Relationship of Conflicting Interests.

China with its existing rigidity and in amenability on South China Sea conflicts evident from its official declarations that its sovereign rights over the South China Sea region are “Non-Negotiable” hardly denotes it is ready for conflict resolution processes. Further when China designates the South China Se region as its “Core Interest” and that to defend this core interest, China is ready to go to war, is a very clear enunciation of China’s strategic intentions.

Another scholar projecting thoughts on the conflict resolution prospects on the South China Sea conflicts maintains that there are three reinforcing and mutually dependent factors for equitable and desirable solution which can be summarised as follows: (1) China exercises restraint on the South China Sea conflictual issues (2) ASEAN exhibits regional solidarity to strengthen its collective bargaining against China and some sort of deterrence, and (3) United States strong commitment to ensure that China’s aggressive brinkmanship is check-mated on the South China Sea conflicts.

One’s own take on these three factors is that China cannot be expected to exercise restraint on the South China Sea conflicts going by its demonstrated behaviour and its declarations on the issue. As far as ASEAN solidarity is concerned, that myth stands shattered as discussed earlier. In fact it can be expected that China would attempt to widen the cleavages within ASEAN.

The United States is not tied by any security alliance relationship with ASEAN countries in dispute with China on the South China Sea conflicts issue with the exception of the Philippines. Its only other commitment to South China Sea conflicts issue pertains to the ‘defence of the global commons’ and ‘freedom of navigation’ of the high seas and thereby maintaining its maritime dominance over the Western Pacific.. It remains to be seen how far the United States moves in securing its strategic interests breaking out of its self-imposed China-policy strait-jacket of ‘China Hedging Strategy” and “Risk Aversion”

In the South China Sea disputes, China as the dominant power in the region has employed all the tools of aggression to achieve its strategic goals of exercising full control over the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands and the other land forms that dot the Sea. China has additionally made it known that it has full sovereignty over the surrounding maritime expanse of these disputed Islands.

China’s muscular strategy now extends beyond ASEAN confines to subtle challenges to the United States and Indian Navies and international oil prospecting countries. China’s aggressiveness has now reached further North to the East China Sea against Japan.

China perforce presents policy attitudes and formulations which are suggestive of being Revisionist Power” intent on changing the existing order in the Asia Pacific.

The crucial question that arises then is as to what optimistic prospects exist towards conflict resolution in the South China Sea disputes. China till date has not given any substantial indications for participation in any conflict resolution initiatives or even to adhere to existing to any international laws or conventions for such disputes. It rigidly maintains that it is only ready for bilateral dialogues singly with each of its opposing claimants. This by itself is a “Non-Starter” for initiation of any conflict resolution process encompassing wider regional and international implications.

Concluding Observations

South China Sea disputes and conflicts for far too long have been viewed from the narrow perspective of being a territorial dispute over the legality and sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands and associated land forms that dot the Sea between a military overbearing China and the militarily weaker ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea dispute.

ASEAN as the prominent regional grouping of South East nations has been found wanting in maintaining a solid collective front against China and deterring it from aggression against ASEAN’S littoral nations on the South China Sea. Continued ASEAN disunity contrived by China in the furtherance of its strategic aims may ultimately unravel ASEAN.

The South China Sea conflicts today stand graduated to a much higher strategic level where this region stands transformed into a chequerboard for international power-play and strategic rivalries for control of the Western Pacific between China and the United States.

The recently declaration of Russia’s strategic pivot to Asia Pacific introduces a new and stronger chess player in this region with consequent impact on the on-going conflicts.

United Sates commitment to stability and security of the South China Sea region needs to be unambiguous, credible and declaratory in form. Should the United States falter in this direction because of its ‘China Hedging Strategy” and “Risk Aversion” policy approaches against China, the United States then might as well write off its strategic embedment in the Asia Pacific.

The South China Sea conflicts seem headed towards initiating another global Cold War, this time in Asia Pacific. This new Cold War initiated by China’s aggressiveness and brinkmanship, devoid of ideological underpinnings, but dominated by an on-going strategic tussle initially for mastery of the Western Pacific, promises to be more intense and conflictual.


1 Robert D. Kaplan, “MONSOON: THE INDIAN OCEAN AND THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN POWER”, New York, Random House, 2010

2. Joseph s. Nye Jr. “THE FUTURE OF POWER”, New York, Public Affairs, 2011

3. George Friedman, THE NEXT DECADE”, New York, Doubleday, 201






8. WESTERN PACIFIC NO LONGER PACIFIC, Paper no.5164, 16 August 2012



10.   RUSSIA’S STRATEGIC PIVOT TO ASIA PACIFIC, Paper no.5452, 08 April 2013

11. Nguyen Manh Hung, “Could Conflict in South China Sea Lead to a New Cold War”, Asia Society, October 22 2012

12, Joseph S. Nye Jr. “A New Great Power Relationship”, Op Ed, China Daily, March 4 2013

13. Kai Kog, “ASEAN’S Great Power Dilemma”, Op Ed. Asia Times, February 22 2013

14. Michael T. Clare, “The United States Heads to South China Sea”, Foreign Affairs, February 21 2013

15. Rodion Ebighausen, ‘Why China is a Bone of Contention”. September 05 2012, www,

16. “China Ready to Go to War to Safeguard National Interest”. PTI Report, February 02 2011

17. Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, April 2012 Report, 17   Dr Subhash Kapila. ‘THE GLOBAL POWER SHIFT TO ASIA: Geostrategic and Geopolitical Implications”