South China Sea Dispute: Chinese Strategy and U.S. Priorities

Foreign Affairs Security

While the Philippines seeks a legal resolution to the Spratlys Islands dispute, recent history shows a consistent realpolitik strategy on the Chinese side that the ITLOS outcome seems unlikely to meaningfully alter.

Publiko's Analysis of Chinese Strategy and U.S. Priorities

1. Chinese strategy

While the Philippines seeks a legal resolution to the Spratlys Islands dispute, recent history shows a consistent realpolitik strategy on the Chinese side that the ITLOS outcome seems unlikely to meaningfully alter. It is a policy that is assertive but non-confrontational, changing the de facto balance of power non-aggressively so as not to invite outside intervention. In 1995, the PRC took advantage of relaxed Philippine maritime patrols due to a typhoon to erect a structure on Mischief Reef then gradually turned it into a Chinese military outpost, serving as a safe harbor from which Chinese ships now patrol the islands.1 The June 2012 standoff at the Scarborough Shoal concluded when the U.S. helped broker an agreement for both sides’ ships to leave, but the Chinese vessels never left. They blocked access to the shoal through a nest of boats in a so-called ‘cabbage strategy,’ successively surrounding the island in layers. General Zhang seems intent to continue this strategy, not only declaring it an ‘achievement’ but also stating that if the Chinese “carry out the cabbage strategy, you will not be able to send food and drinking water onto the islands. Without the supply for one or two weeks, the troopers stationed there will leave the islands on their own. Once they have left, they will never be able to come back.”2 

More recently, however, the Chinese have also turned to a more proactive, assertive strategy in defense of their sovereignty claims. This particularly showed during the deployment of the oil rig in the Paracels and in the artificial island-building in response to the Philippines’ ITLOS memorial. Chito Sta. Romana notes that, “under Confucian culture, to file a case against a neighbor is equivalent to humiliation or snapping the neighbor’s face.”3 This is relevant because China accepts political and diplomatic settlements as the proper and agreed-upon mechanism for the conflict; the PRC never agreed to legal settlement. 

The PRC’s stance on and treatment of the various overlapping territorial disputes as bilateral affairs, to be negotiated between the PRC and each individual claimant separately, maximizes the PRC’s overall potential gain.4 Given the lack of enforcement mechanisms attached to the UNCLOS, and the precedent set by the U.S.’s dismissal or evasion of international law when at odds with American strategic or national interests, there is little to suggest that the PRC will heed the UNCLOS decision if unfavorable. The PRC’s recent foreign policy also does not suggest a primary consideration for its ‘publicity’ image in the international community, particularly if Chinese economic interests, and especially Chinese sovereignty, are at stake. Image may play a larger role in the future, though, if the AIIB and other frameworks requiring greater international trust of China are instituted.

The assumption in Zhang’s strategy is that Philippine troops will not be able to return once forced off a territory due to both military inferiority and the U.S.’s caution with regard to conflict in the Asia-Pacific region. The Chinese gamble is that the U.S. seeks to maintain the region’s status quo, with U.S. strategic interests protected and global power enjoyed, while avoiding military overstretch and disrupted economic relations. Therefore, the PRC’s greatest chance for military and territorial gain is to slowly tilt the de facto status quo. It was here that China miscalculated the U.S.’s definition of its strategic interests, leading to the U.S.’s protests against China’s reclamation and China’s removal of its artillery pieces.

To view this history from a further remove, however, one sees that China is following the normative path of a rising power. China is undergoing the transition from a land power primarily concerned with internal affairs to a maritime power with growing concern for its maritime boundaries.5 The country is in the process of a deep strategic shift, in the same pattern as that of the U.S. during its own rise to power a century ago, naturally turning to the sea after completing its continental expansion. The PRC does not see itself as initiating an arms race, but rather, reconfiguring its strategic interests and streamlining and improving its capabilities in line with its growth.6

In this, the PRC needs to maintain international peace in order to achieve its domestic targets, which are so crucial to the Communist Party and the image it seeks to portray to its domestic audience. Specifically: “Chinese leader Xi Jinping envisions a ‘Chinese dream’ of rejuvenating his country to achieve two centennial goals—to turn China into a middle-income economy by 2021, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, and to join the ranks of advanced economies by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.”7

2. U.S. priorities

The Philippines is a U.S. treaty ally, but not a serious priority relative to the rest of the U.S.’s Asia-Pacific allies. Ultimately, the East China Sea is more important to the U.S. than is the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea. Japan enjoys mutual defense with the U.S. through the ‘Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan’ that does include the disputed Senkaku Islands (though the U.S. does not officially take a position on the merits of competing sovereignty claims). 

The PRC’s actions in the Senkaku Islands have been bold, even establishing on 11/23/13 the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. While the U.S. three days later sent two B-52 bombers through the zone and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared that the U.S. will not in any way change how it conducts military operations in the region, the U.S. nevertheless advised American commercial airlines to comply with the PRC’s demands out of fear of unwanted confrontation. Therefore, it seems that even with regard to its greatest Asian territorial dispute priority, the U.S. is seeking to avoid conflict, even while making moves to stand firm, as seen recently again in the West Philippine Sea in the lead up to the 14th Asia Security Summit.

If a great power contest were to boil over between the U.S. and China, Obama’s side-by-side statements of support for Japan and for the Philippines communicate to the PRC that the Spratlys are the easier near-term target. Obama visited Tokyo immediately before Manila in his tour of Asia, and the unconditional defensive support that he gave for Japan contrasts greatly with the weak analogous defensive support he declared for the Philippines: “Our commitment to Japan’s security is absolute and article five [of the security treaty] covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku islands.”8 Moreover, strategic thinkers in the PRC may be emboldened to use threats over the Senkakus as a way to force the U.S. to turn a blind eye to Chinese encroachments in the Spratlys. Obama’s ultimately weak comparative show of support for the Philippines—even after the Philippine President’s first provocative statements comparing the PRC’s actions to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland—communicate to the PRC that the Philippines’ attempt to enlist American support for our claims and to turn international public opinion in our favor have not worked.

The U.S. will not allow poorer, less strategically important countries, such as Vietnam or the Philippines, to drag the U.S. into war with the PRC when the bilateral Chinese-American relationship is so important to the security of the 21st century and to the U.S. economy, though it may allow richer, crucially important Japan to do so. Though of course the U.S. seeks to check China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia and to defend its allies in the region, Obama declared explicitly on 4/28/14 that what is important to the U.S. with regard to the Spratlys is “freedom of navigation that allows for continued progress and prosperity.”9 Most major shipping routes pass safely west of the Spratlys (with the exception of the Manila-Jakarta route that rounds the coasts of Borneo and Palawan over 150 km east of Mischief Reef). Indeed, mariners deliberately avoid the area in their shipping routes due to the area’s shallows, shoals, and poor charting.10 Given this public statement, if conflict were to break out between China and one of the smaller power claimants, the U.S. would have an easy cover, if it desired one, for exit from involvement due to the non-interruption of shipping and freedom of navigation. 

Yet, the recent reaction to China’s land reclamation has revealed the U.S.’s hard line with regard to militarization of these island chains, and it is in this that the true U.S. priority lies. U.S. priorities do not include the sovereignty question of these territories, but they do include the access of the U.S. military to the first island chain, refusing to accept relegation to the second island chain of Guam. 



Jeff Himmelman, “A Game of Shark and Minnow,” The New York Times, October 27, 2013, accessed April 30, 2014,




“Rappler Talk: The Philippines & China's Great Wall of Sand,”, June 8, 2015, accessed June 29, 2015,


Jeff Himmelman, “A Game of Shark and Minnow,” The New York Times, October 27, 2013, accessed April 30, 2014,


Christian Le Miere, “China’s Unarmed Arms Race: Beijing’s Maritime Build-Up Isn’t What It Appears,” Foreign Affairs Jul 29, 2013, accessed April 30, 2014,




Chito Sta. Romana, Dealing with the Chinese pushback, Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 21, 2014, accessed June 29, 2015,


Justin McCurry and Tania Branigan, “Obama says US will defend Japan in island dispute with China,” The Guardian, April 24, 2014, accessed April 30, 2014,


Ellen Tordesillas, “Obama Shatters Delusions of Many Filipinos,” The Inbox, April 29, 2014, accessed April 30, 2014,


Ang Cheng Guan, “ASEAN, China and the South China Sea Dispute: A Rejoinder,” Security Dialogue 30, no. 425 (December 1999): 425-430.





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