Post-INF World: US-China Strategic Competition in the South China Sea

Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln and Kitty Hawk carrier strike groups
Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln and Kitty Hawk carrier strike groups. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Todd P. Cichonowicz / Public domain

When the US decision to withdraw from the INF treaty was announced, it was felt that this decision would allow the US more options to change the regional balance of power in the Asia-Pacific in general and the South China Sea (SCS) in particular, a region where China has been flexing its muscles for some time. In fact the development of Chinese A2/AD (anti-access/ area denial) capabilities in the area has the potential to lock western companies out of the resource rich region and therefore continuous Chinese militarization of the SCS in general and the disputed Spratly and Hainan Islands in particular are bound to raise eyebrows in Washington.

The termination of the INF treaty maybe a boon to the US in this regard as now the US can develop land-based medium-range and intermediate-range conventional and nuclear missiles to bridge the missile gap with China in the region. As the 2016 China-Philippines dispute and its aftermath showed China has refused to compromise on its maritime sovereignty in the SCS region and has been continuously improving its military bases including the creation of new artificial islands for the purpose of installation of military facilities. 

Chinese claims in the region are based on a particular interpretation of history, and Beijing employs a specific geographical marker known as the “nine-dash line” to assert its claim. This line stretches over 2000 kilometres from the Chinese mainland, extending up to the waters of Indonesia and Malaysia. Going beyond the historical assertions, the rationale for Beijing to dominate the region is fairly evident. The region is rich in hydrocarbons, deposits which are largely untapped and a major trade route, with abundant fishing resources. Chinese behaviour in the SCS and its willingness to use military force and political coercion in tandem shows the importance of the region in Chinese strategic thinking and implies that China wants to achieve regional dominance over the SCS. 

In order to preserve its interests in the region, the US must compete with China and look to build and consolidate alliances with countries like Taiwan, Philippines, South Korea, Japan and other countries which are affected by Chinese maritime capabilities in the region. The development of Chinese advanced anti-ship cruise missiles has directly affected the capabilities of the US military to carry out operations in the SCS. Therefore, the US has emphasized on the need to project power in regions where China has developed its A2/AD capabilities which reflects a firm commitment to deter Chinese expansionist policies and alter the balance of power in the region.

In fact analysts in Washington have expressed grave concerns as to Chinese capabilities and intentions in the region with the USINDOPACOM (United States Indo-Pacific Command) Chief Admiral Davidson stating before the Congress that China can control the SCS in all scenarios “short of war with the United States”. A recent Chinese incursion into Vietnam’s territorial waters clearly exhibits China’s intentions in the region. Therefore, for the sake of China’s neighbours in the SCS, it is imperative that the US plays a more assertive role in the region because these states are at a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis China. The withdrawal from the INF treaty, therefore, allows the US more elbow-room to deploy missiles in order to counter China in the region and deter Chinese aggression. It also provides an opportunity to circumvent the problem that Chinese A2/AD capabilities pose in the SCS. However, the adoption of such a stance, which posits the US as a balancer in the SCS region, may create regional instability as China has refused to negotiate its territorial claims in the region and with China’s rise, it will pose a more concerted challenge to US authority in the SCS. 

Under the Trump administration tensions have already heightened between the two largest economies of the world, chiefly concerning the burgeoning trade deficit of the US vis-à-vis China. Although, the Phase One Trade Deal has been signed on the 15th of January between the two states, strategists must always be on their heels in a multiplex world where no single source of power, however overwhelming it may be, be it economic or military is sufficient to determine the course of International Politics. 

The complex nature of the current world order necessitates restraint on the part of overzealous policymakers, and it would be ill-advised for Washington to apply the Cold War logic to the concerned region, hoping to pull off another spectacular exercise in containment of yet another peer competitor, as was in the case of the Soviet Union in the past. Another important factor that US strategists have to be cognizant about is the behaviour of the other Southeast Asian countries when the question of China arises. Traditionally, these states have rejected looking for a bilateral solution with Beijing; but as recently as in 2018, states like the Philippines and Vietnam have declared that they are willing to hold talks with China to resolve disputes in the area “in accordance with international law.” 

The US needs to recognize the deep economic linkages between the Southeast Asian states and China, and their understandable unease to challenge Chinese hegemony in the region by contesting directly with the hegemon. Lacking the necessary wherewithal, these states may rely on the US only to accentuate their bargaining power, without opening up a theatre for power competition in the SCS, thereby jeopardizing Asian security. Under the circumstances, if Washington is to maintain its profile as the responsible power, it must adopt a policy of neither direct, aggressive containment nor benign engagement with China. It must make a tightrope walk in foreign policy matters and congage China.  

In essence, the access to the American market is crucial to China’s economic prosperity, and this is one of the ways Beijing can be compelled to act responsibly. China is aware of the fact that the military balance of power lies firmly in favour of Washington and will not risk open confrontation with the US while leveraging its growing economic clout to build up its military capabilities. Therefore, while it is difficult to predict the exact course of  Sino-US relations, it is safe to assume that unilateral action by the latter can only worsen the situation and that the Southeast Asian states risk being sidelined in regional security affairs if they do not come up with a broad strategy which encompasses their regional and global objectives. The worst-case scenario is to be avoided at all costs, that is an unstable SCS, and it would require no small amount of diplomatic skill to ensure that competition can be managed and that it does not snowball into conflict.

Viewsand opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.


Dhritiman Banerjee is an undergraduate student of political science at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India.

Subhranil Ghosh is a 2nd year post-graduate student pursuing Political Science with specialization in International Relations at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University.