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The Sino-US Security Dilemma: The Root Cause and Way Out

CIIS Time: Feb 13, 2017 Writer: Teng Jianqun Editor: Wang Jiapei


With an awakening of maritime consciousness and a growing pace of economic reform and development, China is displaying renewed interest in the affairs of the seas. Beijing’s maritime rejuvenation comes at a time when the United States is rebalancing to the East. As opposed to the US Navy, which has been a maritime power for nearly 250 years, the PLA (Navy) is an aspiring force with a maritime dream. But differences between China and the US in the Western Pacific have grown sharper in recent times, acquiring the nature of an open confrontation. With both sides unwilling to compromise on their interests in the South China Sea (SCS), the avenues for dialogue and negotiation are rapidly shrinking. With the shifting power balance in the region, China and the US seem to be locked in a complex security dilemma with no easy solutions in sight.


A Historical Perspective

In China’s view, the history of the South China Sea dispute is the key to deciphering its many complexities. China and the United States have both changed their policies and attitudes in the SCS, but have a different understanding of the region’s history. The US used to take no position during the Cold War era, while China protected its interests only through diplomatic leverage. How their policies in the region have evolved overtime has been a function of their historical perspectives.

China’s Position

Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has given priority to diplomatic leverage in its political agenda. In the 1950s, the Chinese government made a series of statements and announcements related to the sovereignty of the islands in the South China Sea. In May 1950, the Chinese government declared that they will not allow the Nansha Islands (Spratly Inslands) and some other islands to be “illegally occupied” by other countries.A year later, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai proclaimed sovereignty over Xisha[1] and Nanwei[2] Islands. Like Nansha[3] and Dongsha[4] Islands, he declared, the former have always belonged to China. In May 1956, when the Philippines announced its claims over Nansha, the Chinese government reiterated what it called its “undisputable sovereignty” over the islands, making clear that it would never allow any country to invade these islands.

 The 1970s was a period of limited response by the Chinese government to the occupation by claimants. As relevant countries in Southeast Asia sought to occupy the SCS islands, China began a process of territorial recovery. In January 1974, the Chinese Navy recovered the Xisha Islands from Vietnam. In September 1979, when the Vietnamese government issued a white paper claiming sovereignty over Huangsha[5] and Changsha,[6] China refuted Hanoi’s claim forcefully. Five years later, in March 1988, the Chinese Navy defeated the Vietnamese Navy in a skirmish over Chigua Reef.[7] After the clash, the Chinese government reiterated its sovereignty over Xisha Islands and Nansha Islands, even as the Vietnamese Navy took possession of other reefs in Nansha Islands.

By the 1990s, however, the Chinese government had resigned itself to the maintenance of sovereignty and stability in the SCS. As China-ASEAN relations improved, so did the prospects for peace in Southeast Asia. There were a series of cooperative advancements in this period, notably the Declaration of the South China Sea (July 1992) and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties on the South China Sea (November 2002).

Importantly, China and ASEAN undertook not to worsen the dispute by resorting to unnecessary aggression. However, when outgoing US President Barack Obama announced his ‘rebalancing’ strategy towards Asia Pacific, many Chinese analysts came to believe that the US was going to enlarge its interests and adopt provocative policies. In many ways, it was America’s show of assertiveness in the Western Pacific that led to a standoff over HuangyanIsland[8] in April 2012. It became a turning point in China’s policy in the South China Sea, as Beijing moved to take comprehensive control of a shoal and its relevant waters. Later in the same year, during the CPC 18thCongress in Beijing, President Hu Jintao declared that China’s maritime aspirations with three overarching objectives: safeguarding its maritime sovereignty; carrying out maritime exploration; and protecting the maritime environment. From then on, the Chinese government has been willing to protect its national interests not only through diplomacy but also through law enforcement and use of the military.

Evolution of the US Position

The US-Spanish War of 1898 marked the start of the US’ interest in the affairs of the South China Sea. The war’s completion saw the signing of the Paris Treaty in 1898 and a subsidiary treaty for the possession of islands outside of the country’s mainland. Neither treaty showed the Nansha Islands or Huangyan Island as a part of the territory of the Philippines.

After World War II, the United States committed to assist China’s KMT Party in recovering the islands in the South China Sea, which had been occupied by Japan. The KTM Navy is known to have used US warships to gain control of the islands. The Cairo Declaration, in which the US was a party, was instructive is clarifying the status of the South China Sea. The declaration held that “the three great allies are fighting this war to restrain and punish the aggression of Japan. They covet to gain for themselves and have no thought of territorial expansion. It is their purpose that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China. Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed.” In other words, the Chinese government stood to recover the islands from the possession of Japan.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States adopted an ideological anti-communist posture in the Asia-Pacific. After the Korean War broke out, the US signed an Agreement of Mutual Defense and Assistance with three countries in Southeast Asia. In 1954, it concluded another agreement with regional states forming the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. For the first time, Washington and its allies sought to dominate the South China Sea, to deter and defeat the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.

American double standards in its dealings in the South China Sea have been clear from the start. The US refused to accept China’s sovereignty over Nansha Islands and Xishan Islands in the 1950s and opposed construction on Ganquan Island.[9] In 1957, the US, South Vietnam, and Taiwan reached an agreement that the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States of America and the Republic of China was about arrangements in the South China Sea.[10]

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the SCS became a battleground for influence between the United States and the former Soviet Union. In the late 1970s, the former Soviet Union assisted Vietnam in making Cam Ranh Bay a naval base for the Soviet Navy, even as the United States reached an agreement with the Philippines for use of bases on the latter’s territory. Interestingly, the United States maintained an ambivalent posture on the SCS during the administration of Ronald Reagan by refraining from any public opposition to China’s sovereignty claims.

The next phase was one of US ‘intervention’ in Southeast Asia. After the UNCLOS came into force, the United States modified its approach to the South China Sea. Following the Meiji Reef[11] standoff between China and the Philippines in 1995, the US State Department adopted the Foreign Interests Act, reiterating freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Joseph Nye, then an official from the US State Department, declared that if there was military action in the South China Sea, the US armed forces would be ready to escort the vessels and to make sure that freedom of navigation was preserved. Nye was the first US official to express such a position, implying that the United States would use forces to intervene in the dispute in the South China Sea.

Since then, Washington’s South China Sea policy has been one of direct confrontation with China. The Obama administration’s ‘rebalance’ is the old offshore-balancing game played in the European continent 100 years ago. Its main purpose is to manipulate the contradictions between China and its neighbours and find excuses for military posturing in the Asia Pacific region. Even as officials from the Obama administration deny taking sides, they have used the SCS dispute as an important leveraging tool.

In July 2010, the then Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton announced that the US had clear interests in the SCS. Washington, she declared, treated freedom of navigation in the region as a core imperative. While the US took no position over the dispute in the South China Sea, Clinton stated that the US government would be willing to assist all the claimants in solving the dispute, even support all the political and legal agreements reached between the relevant countries. Clinton also made it clear that the United States opposes any use of force to solve the dispute, and that the actions taken by relevant parties should be in accordance with international law, especially the UNCLOS of 1982.


A Security Dilemma

Still, differences between the US and China continue to persistand have developed into a ‘security dilemma’ over time. In the main part, the divergences flow from competing interpretations of geo-politics and international laws. China and the United States, it seems, have a fundamentally divergent appreciation of the principles governing these areas.

American leaders believe that to be a strong power in the world, a country must have a powerful navy. Alfred Thayer Mahan, the well-known US maritime theorist, argued that the history of sea and ocean was a history of competition, intimidation and warfighting. According to Mahan, the prosperity and development gained through maritime trade could only be protected through the efficient use of military power. The history of maritime power related to all the nations who relied on the maritime domain and its exploration for their development.[12]

For the US, therefore, control over the seas is a prerequisite for hegemonic power projection. The US Navy seeks to achieve this through the setting up of offensive task forces. Through its use, the US Navy carries out global freedom of navigation.

The awakening of China’s maritime consciousness, meanwhile, has been a recent phenomenon. It was only in November 2012, during the 18th CPC national congress in Beijing, that President Hu Jintao announced China’s maritime power aspirations. The aim, he declared, was to enhance capacity for exploiting maritime resources, resolutely safeguard maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power.” [13]

In a Defence White Paper in 2015, Chinese officials brought out the importance of the seas for enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China. The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests. The White Paper held that it is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests, safeguard its national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, protect the security of strategic SLOCs and overseas interests, and participate in international maritime cooperation, so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power.”[14]

Most importantly, the white paper stressed on the need for a strong navy. “In line with the strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas protection, the PLA Navy (PLAN) will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection’ and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure. The PLAN will enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime maneuvers, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defense and comprehensive support.”[15]

China’s President Xi Jinping has repeatedly pointed out that his country has the right to safeguard its sovereignty and maritime interests. Even though China is committed to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, it will not be at the cost of its territorial interests. China would like to privilege negotiation, consultation, and peaceful means to manage the differences and dispute. It would be respectful of freedom of navigation and over-flight under the international laws. But it would not let its interests be undermined.

 China’s political leaders hold that the construction in the Spratly Islands is not targeted at other countries and not detrimental to their interests. While undertaking not to militarise the islands, China hopes to adopt a constructive approach to addressing towards the relevant issues.[16]

Even so, the politics of the South China Sea remains complicated. Geopolitically, the United States’ main concern is China’s control over the SCS.  Washington’s Indo-Asia-Pacific strategy is about making sure China does not dominate the critical waterway. American policymakers see the South China Sea as a strategic bridge between the two Oceanic systems, wrongly assuming that the Chinese government has both the intention and capability to dominate the waterway.

When US officials express a willingness to talk about the rule of law in the South China Sea, they do not state clearly which international laws they refer to. The United States has signed the UNCLOS but shies away from ratifying it. Despite calls to ratify this convention, the US government does not do it because of fears that doing so might limit American commercial activity in the high seas.

Beijing, meanwhile, may have ratified the UNCLOS, but it accords equal importance to the DOC between ASEAN and China. Chinese leaders find it odd that the US government continually emphasises the binding nature of an arbitral court’s ruling in July this year, on all parties concerned. US state department officials appear to present the order as a referendum on international law.[17]

Clearly there exists a big gap in the way the United States and China interpret international laws. Washington prefers to adhere to the general arrangement by international laws, while Beijing looks at the UNCLOS and its legal principles in the context of its sovereignty over the SCS islands. Without little common ground, the two countries have made little progress in their discussions.


The Way Forward

Is there then a way out of the security dilemma between the United States and China?

It is fair to say that the security dilemmas between China and the United States in the South China Sea stem from the change in the regional balance of power. Without compromise from either side, the confrontation might escalate into military conflict. The best way out of the dilemma then is to share the burden of security in the region.

Firstly, China and the United States should both recognise the reality that the balance of power in the South China Sea is inexorably shifting. China’s rapidly rising comprehensive power makes it more amenable to use force in safeguarding its maritime interests. While it may not challenge the US’ dominant position in the Asia Pacific region, Beijing will not let its sovereign interests be undermined. In order to avoid an escalation in tensions, China and the United States should have a candid exchange on the situation in this region. Cold War mentality and zero-sum games need to be shunned.

Secondly, both countries should realise the dangers of a military confrontation. The two countries are nuclear weapon states and any direct clash would have disastrous consequences for the region. Encouragingly, several recent MOUs seem to have reduced the dangers of miscalculation. These agreements include the Memorandum of Understanding on establishing the mutual reporting and trust mechanism on major military operations and the MOU on the code of safe conduct on naval and air military encounters.

Confidence building measures between the two military, critical for transparency and crisis management, have also been reportedly growing. Indeed, Admiral Scott Swift, the U.S. 7th  Fleet Commander recently commented that encounters between the US Navy and the PLA Navy in the South China Sea were “professional and active”[18]— meaning both sides were familiar with the procedures of unplanned encounters at sea.

    Thirdly, China and the US should be careful not to insist on sovereignty negotiation with any other country. China will firmly insist on its claims in the South China Sea and the United States will continue to harp on freedom of navigation. One way to break the cycle would be to have joint patrolling in the South China Sea, maybe even share China’s facilities in Nansha Island. Some US officials might view joint patrolling with China as an endorsement of the latter’s activities in the South China Sea. But if Washington is truly interested in the freedom of navigation, it will have to respond positively. If not, its resolve at maintaining freedom of navigation might be tested.

Lastly, China should learn to be patient in its dealings with the United States. The completion between an established hegemon and a rising power is always prolonged and protracted. After nearly 40years of opening up it economy and instituting reforms, China is now playing a responsible role in regional and global affairs. It will need to slowly learn to keep pace with the global leader. For its part, the US will need to better accommodate China’s interests. The new administration under Donald Trump cannot be expected to completely abandon its South China Sea policy. It may indeed create some troubles for Beijing in the coming years. In the long-run, however, Washington will need to share its turf with the new challenger. The competition and cooperation in security and economy are two sides of the same coin. Donald Trump might soon realise that being patient with China might be his best bet.



Dr Teng Jianqun is a senior research fellow and the Director of the Center for Arms Control at the China Institute of International Studies and also Director for the Department of American Studies at China Institute of International Studies. From 1979 to 1992, he served in the People’s Liberation Army, first in the navy and later in the Academy of Military Science, where he served as assistant research fellow and editor-in-chief of the “World Military Review.” Teng has written extensively on arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation including “An Assessment of US Non-proliferation Policy” and “Choices and Challenges of China’s Nuclear Disarmament.”



Source: This article was originally published in GP-ORF’s Line in the Waters, February 08, 2017.


[1]Paracel Islands.

[2] Originally, Spratly Island was just designated as one island—Nanwei Island and later Spratly was designated as the whole islands.

[3] Spratly Islands

[4]Pratas Islands

[5]Xisha Islands or Paracel Islands

[6]Nansha Islands or Spratly Islands

[7] Johnson South Reef.

[8] Scarborough Shoall

[9] The Robert Island.

[10] The treaty was signed on December 2nd, 1954 in Washington and entered into force on March 3rd, 1955 by the exchanges of instrument of ratification at Taipei, terminated by the United States of America in 1980.

[11] The Mischief Island.


[13] Chinese president, Hu Jintao delivered a keynote report during the opening ceremony of the 18th CPC National Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Nov. 8, 2012. The 18th CPC National Congress was opened in Beijing on Thursday.

[14] Chinese military Strategy, the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, May 2015, Beijing.


[16] Remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House briefing2015925日, 2015/09/25/remarks-president-obama-and-president-xi-peoples- republic-china-joint.

[17] Keynote speech by Daniel Krinstenbrink at CSIS on July 12th, 2016

[18]The Q& by Admiral Swift at the international conference on maritime issue at Canberra on March 6th, 2016.