Pen#4 US-China Zero-Sum Mentality in the SCS: Spiral Towards Conflict?

By Johnathan Falcone

USS Ronald Reagan’s motto is ‘Peace Through Strength’. The nuclear-powered supercarrier, homeported in Japan, is the hallmark of American military might in the Western Pacific. Her forward presence is meant to deter conflict and ensure stability in a region consumed by tension. Seemingly, she operates true to her motto—she assures partners, unflinchingly sails in contested waters, all while flexing her offensive potential.

The South China Sea is, arguably, the most contentious body of water in this region. Here, seven states maintain competing territorial and maritime claims. Despite international law and arbitration, sovereignty disputes continue to result in military posturing. China, a primary actor in each dispute, has aggressively asserted their claims since early 2013 and continuously engage in land reclamation and militarization projects—supported by the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N), Chinese Coast Guard (CCG), and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). The United States, as Southeast Asia’s primary security provider for over 70 years, has not idly stood by. Although Washington takes no position on competing territorial dispute claims, it has explicitly denounced excessive maritime claims. In support of regional stability and international law, Washington has relied heavily on naval presence and freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in these contested waters.

China’s island-building projects, the United States’ military-centric response, and rhetoric between the two has entrenched the two nations in a textbook example of a security dilemma. Neither Beijing nor Washington are in a position to increase its security without the perception of decreasing the other’s. This security dilemma is deepened by an over reliance on military and paramilitary assets to reach a resolution, which only serves to confirm the narrative each party tells itself: in Beijing, the United States is a hegemon deploying international law solely on behalf of its own interests; while in Washington, China is a revisionist power upending regional peace and stability. International relations scholar and theorist, Robert Jervis’ spiral model offers a lens to analyse the consequences of these military-centric actions and answer the question: does increasing presence solve or deepen the security dilemma?

In an attempt to untangle the perceptions driving the current spiral, this analysis will be broken down into three sections. First, it defines the strategic significance and opposing visions of influence—international law versus historic rights—that underlie the strategic contest. The second section describes the naval assets available to each state and the challenge in credibly signaling a defensive posture. And the final section predicts the continued use of surface assets and how this will continue to deepen the security dilemma. Particularly in the South China Sea, strategies that rely upon naval forces to resolve competitive interests increases the risk of unintended escalation between tactical units because of the challenge in distinguishing the true intentions of the other. If Washington’s true objective is to uphold international law and achieve a peaceful resolution, military action must be coupled with diplomatic and economic efforts.

Johnathan Falcone just visible journalling near the flight deck whilst operating in the SCS (Source: Johnathon Falcone)

Sea of Desire

The South China Sea functions as a critical transit corridor connecting the Western Pacific and Indian oceans. The Strait of Malacca and the Taiwan Strait flank the sea that accounts for a third of worldwide maritime trade worth over $5 trillion. These sea lanes account for roughly two-thirds of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and 90 percent of China’s crude oil imports. An estimated 11 billion barrels and 160 trillion cubic feet of proved, probable oil and natural gas reserves concomitantly adds to rising interest and competition. The sea is also home to fishing grounds that account for 12 percent of the world’s annual catch.

America’s strategic interest in the region is twofold. First, freedom of the seas is fundamental to U.S. leadership in today’s dollar-denominated financial order. The quantity of goods and volume of energy supplies that pass through the sea, bound for American and regional partners’ shores, makes the waterway a main artery of the international marketplace. The United States and its economic partners—both developed and developing, including China—all depend upon unimpeded trade in the South China Sea to power their cities and participate in the global financial system. Second, America’s regional hegemony in Southeast Asia is at stake. The U.S. military’s commitment to presence in the region post-World War II has been the lynchpin to security. This stability has contributed to Southeast Asian development by ensuring access to foreign markets and protection of maritime rights. American influence in the region remains strong because freedom of the seas—sponsored by the U.S., her partners, and international institutions—has ensured free maritime access  “to protect the stable economic order.”

For China, sovereignty over more than two hundred reefs, rocks and features is about more than pure economic incentives. Ely Ratner, a Senior Fellow in China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes that if Beijing seized control of the South China Sea, “it would deal a devastating blow to the United States’ influence in the region, tilting the balance of power across Asia in China’s favor.” The recently published United States Tri-Service Maritime Strategy echoes this sentiment. China has already demonstrated its willingness to employ economic and military might. Beijing unilaterally declared a sea-wide fishing ban in 2020 and has previously limited Vietnam’s access to natural resources within its economic exclusive zone. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) recent H-6J deployment to Woody Island increases China’s offensive capacity in the region, threatening U.S. allies and partner’s assets deployed to the area and in Guam. Put simply, China’s sovereignty claims are about their capacity to wage influence over resources and other regional states, all while undermining international law.

The security dilemma in the South China Sea is at the frontline of the most fundamental aspect of American power: international law. International law forms the basis of America’s economic and military power in the Southeast Asian region and world. China, as the rising power, seeks recognition outside of the consensus interpretation of law and that aligns with its historical greatness and present rise. In the American view, if an accommodation is made for a rising power to undermine international law at this front, future rising powers may act in a similar manner. As such, the ideal outcome for the United States is to limit Chinese expansion by enforcing international law in a manner short of conflict. Whereas China hopes for the international community to recognize its domestic law, establish a regional “code of conduct” that excludes American input, and do so “peacefully”. These incompatible visions for influence have ushered in the current security dilemma.

“…the ideal outcome for the United States is to limit Chinese expansion by enforcing international law in a manner short of conflict. Whereas China hopes for the international community to recognize its domestic law, establish a regional “code of conduct” that excludes American input, and do so “peacefully”. These incompatible visions for influence have ushered in the current security dilemma.”

Subs, Ships and Planes in Sea Lanes

Whether the action-reaction, tit-for-tat posturing results in an unintentional clash will be driven by perception of the military platforms deployed. Some platforms are overtly offensive and, thus, antagonistic. Others are intended to be defensive, in an effort to demonstrate resolve without eliciting an escalatory response. For the purposes of this analysis, a platform with an offensive posture is one that is perceived to be escalatory either because of its inherent capabilities or its employment. A defensive posture, on the other hand, is one that intends to maintain the status quo or cannot reasonably pose a threat. In the maritime theatre—given the assets available today—it is difficult to deploy unambiguously defensive platforms. Nearly all platforms have the potential to be perceived as offensive. 

Washington and Beijing each have submarines, aircraft, and surface ships to deploy to the contested waters. Each asset type—and class within each asset type—are equipped for well-defined mission sets that contribute to an adversary’s perception. Submarine forces include deterrence, anti-surface, and anti-submarine platforms. The PLA-N’s submarine force primarily represents an anti-surface threat in the event of hostilities, whereas the U.S. Navy (USN) can deploy submarines as a deterrence or anti-surface platform. Submarines located in well-known transit corridors or on the surface may be perceived as defensive; however, both USN and PLA-N subsurface vessels are difficult to locate and track, complicating perceptions. And despite the USN’s relative advantage employing submarines for anti-surface purposes, PLA-N submarines still represent a threat to USN surface vessels. Therefore, the presence of these anti-surface assets near contested features, particularly in the vicinity of surface ships, are typically perceived as offensive by both navies.  

Aircraft are high-speed, unconstrained by geographic features, and their endurance enables some platforms to deploy from far distances . Within the South China Sea context, China has a burgeoning aircraft carrier capability, but operations farther from the mainland are still limited despite airstrips on militarized outposts. The United States can deploy Air Force (USAF) assetssea-based carrier aircraft, and longer-range, land-based reconnaissance planes. But an aircraft’s ability to achieve a defensive posture, in pursuit of either state’s objectives, is limited because of their speed and the relatively small airspaces they would overfly. Even if such a posture could be unambiguously demonstrated, aircraft are capable reconnaissance platforms. As such, both militaries will be skeptical about an aircraft’s presence. Commanders will closely monitor airspace, biased towards identifying offensive postures because of the limited response time if a threat is identified. Similar to submarines, aircraft employment is likely to be perceived as offensive by both forces.

Finally, in sheer quantity alone, it is undeniable that the PLA-N has at least reached surface fleet parity with the USN. It has been widely documented and reported that China’s surface force has modernized and expanded. In both the USN and PLA-N fleets, a majority of surface vessels are multi-mission platforms that provide a defensive capability and can perform offensive functions in self or force defence as well as coercive action. Determining surface vessel’s intentions is significantly less challenging because they are easier to track than submarines and slower than aircraft. Therefore, differentiating between offensive and defensive stances is feasible, although certainty of the conclusion is not possible. For example, USN cruisers and destroyers (CRUDES) are largely regarded as defensive units. The armament onboard protects the aircraft carrier, which is an offensive platform with limited self-defense capability. However, these CRUDES assets are agile enough to assume an offensive posture without any overt changes. Beijing is better equipped to manage their surface forces’ posture because of their ability to employ the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and PAFMM. The CCG comprises a variety of cutters with minimum armament that are unmistakably defensive in nature, while the maritime militia conducts grey-zone operations with civilian mariners. Surface vessels have been and will most likely continue to be the assets of choice by Washington and Beijing to balance non-aggression and national objectives.

Where does all this leave us? China wants to continue its reclamation and militarisation throughout the South China Sea. Securing additional outposts, particularly Scarborough Shoal located near the northeast exit of the sea, to complete a “strategic triangle” and enable China to more effectively deploy forces across the region. This capability would rock the foundation of regional peace and appreciably increase the challenge to the United States’ role as the premier regional security provider. Therefore, it is U.S. policy to promote “adherence to international law and standards…to ensure that the rule of law—not coercion and force—dictate maritime Asia’s future.” Given Chinese ambitions, perceptions of American presence and the assets available, a continued over reliance on American military operations is unlikely to achieve this aim. 

“…it is U.S. policy to promote ‘adherence to international law and standards…to ensure that the rule of law—not coercion and force—dictate maritime Asia’s future.’ Given Chinese ambitions, perceptions of American presence and the assets available, a continued over reliance on American military operations is unlikely to achieve this aim.”

Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain DDG-56 (Source: U.S. Navy)

In Pursuit of Equilibrium

To simulate and project each state’s most likely course of action and deduce whether this will solve the present security dilemma, we need to make two assumptions. First, both countries are committed to advancing their objectives and in internal discussions are opposed to engaging the other in conflict. A second assumption is that neither state would be advantaged by resolving the dilemma through kinetic action. Not only would the international community reject offensive action, America is not incentivised to attack because Washington’s objective is to promote international law, not “might makes right”. Additionally, we will concretise this simulation by focusing on action in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal—a critical feature in the sea. The United States and China will continue to lean on surface assets in the contested areas but dueling perceptions over each other’s actions will challenge achieving a peaceful resolution.

Starting with the United States, decision makers will likely increase the frequency of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS). Presumably, to maintain a defensive posture and effectively demonstrate presence, the Navy will send CRUDES assets to perform these operations. As previously stated, aircraft carriers are overtly offensive, and it is difficult to determine the intention of aircraft. Although CRUDES vessels maintain an offensive capability, PLA-N and CCG vessels will be able to track the ships at distance, communicate intentions, and ensure a peaceful interaction. FONOPS tacitly confirm the international norm when these interactions are professional and non-combative. In this instance, the United States can increase its security by demonstrating its commitment to international law without decreasing the security of China, seemingly resolving the security dilemma.

 China, on the other hand, will continue to station CCG cutters within claimed territorial features. Unlike the American position, the South China Sea is geographically within China’s sphere. More to the point, the Chinese consider these territories a part of China. China employs its Coast Guard to enforce maritime claims because “this approach limits the potential for confrontational incidents to escalate since most CCG ships are unarmed, and those that are have relatively light weapons.” These characteristics make the use of CCG assets, as opposed to PLA-N vessels, as the most effective option. The deployment of the CCG to enforce historical rights-based claims would increase China’s security without necessarily decreasing American security. The cutters cannot perform any dredging or construction, nor engage American assets offensively. This strategy advances Beijing’s objective and appears to resolve the security dilemma, as well.

The tragedy of the security dilemma; however, is that despite these ostensibly stable states, apprehension among the powers looms. All American vessels, despite initial postures, are agile enough to become viable offensive assets. Therefore, because China cannot differentiate between offence and defence, it will choose to deploy PLA-N vessels in addition to CCG cutters near contested spaces. China could reduce their offensive appearance by limiting PLA-N’s permanent presence near their claims and “shadow” USN vessels through the contested territory. This would balance American action, without appearing offensive near the Shoal. However, the American vessel will be unable to determine if the ‘shadow’ is there to deter perceived American aggression or is there to ignite hostilities. Additionally, the PLA-N, CCG, and PAFMM can provide intelligence to one another. So although a Chinese cutter may be a seemingly defensive asset, offensively capable PLA-N assets are not far from assisting. Thus, from the perspective of American naval commanders, interaction with any Chinese asset potentially threatens their crew and vessel, risking escalation between units.

From the Chinese perspective, America is de facto acting offensively by its mere presence. They believe everything within the nine-dash line to be a rightful, sovereign Chinese territory and the United States is the regional agitator. Because of these beliefs, all USN action in the region will confirm the biases held by the PLA-N and its commanders. This universal perception of offensive postures coupled with opposing visions of security feeds antagonistic biases increasing the risk of war, despite the claimed objective to settle the dispute peacefully. And so, the security dilemma deepens and potentially spirals with military presence, regardless of the intentions of either state.

Beyond a ‘Military First’ Approach

Competing visions of order in Southeast Asia are at the heart of today’s tensions in the South China Sea. Perceptions of each other’s strategic intentions are perpetuated by confirmation bias of actions at the tactical level, driving the potential for unintended escalation. Each states’ reliance on military assets, whose offensive and defensive postures cannot be unambiguously distinguished from one another, underlies a developing spiral towards conflict. Of the maritime assets available to China and the United States, both submarines and aircraft carry too much risk of offensive interpretation due to their covertness and speed, respectively. Both actors will rely upon surface vessels to continue to mark their claims. China appears to have an asymmetric advantage in maintaining a de-escalatory posture because of the availability of CCG and PAFMM assets as opposed to multi-mission grey-hulled combatants. But given the CCG and PAFMM’s grey-zone operations in the contested space and new Chinese law expanding the CCG’s authority, both the United States and China are likely to view all operating assets as offensive, confirming the biases each has of the other. Given the conditions in the South China Sea, the U.S. military, alone, cannot solve the security dilemma in the region.

Johnathan Falcone is an active duty surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy and regularly tweets from @jdfalc1. He has worked at the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations and as a financial analyst at an investment bank. He is a graduate of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs and Yale University.

The opinions and comments made in this Pen article and on this website do not represent the official position of any government, organisation or entity.

One thought on “Pen#4 US-China Zero-Sum Mentality in the SCS: Spiral Towards Conflict?

  1. Lots of solid information in your piece. Put more simply, China intends to claim Taiwan and in challenging our ( US ) presence in the region. China is testing our resolve to remain committed to our long standing treaty with Taiwan. China is agressive in it’s expansion of its authority in the region because it feels it is its sovereign right to do so. This is the beginning of China’s expansion.

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