05 January 2016

America’s Security Role in the South China Sea

Andrew S. Erickson, “America’s Security Role in the South China Sea,” Naval War College Review 69.1 (Winter 2016): 7-20.

In this issue, Andrew S. Erickson argues for safeguarding the long-term future of the global maritime commons, including the freedom of the vital international sea-lanes of the South China Sea and the airspace above.

From the Editors:

As the United States Navy reportedly prepares to mount a direct challenge to China’s island-building project in the South China Sea, it is appropriate to focus renewed attention on this long-standing irritant in the relationship among China, its neighbors in the region, and the United States. In “America’s Security Role in the South China Sea,” Andrew S. Erickson, of the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, in a presentation originally offered as testimony before the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in July of 2015, provides a succinct overview and analysis of the issue. He contends that “China’s combination of resolve, ambiguity, activities, and deployments has corrosive implications for regional stability and international norms. That’s why the United States now needs to adjust conceptual thinking and policy to stabilize the situation and balance against the prospect of negative Chinese behavior and influence.”


Text of article:

Testimony by Andrew S. Erickson before a Hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, 23 July 2015.

Allow me to share my assessment of the current situation in the South China Sea, followed by my recommendations concerning how the U.S. government should understand the situation and how it may best work to address it.

Emerging Situation

A major Chinese narrative regarding the South China Sea is one of unreciprocated restraint. But Chinese leaders have clearly had an ambitious long-term vision of some sort, backed by years of efforts, themselves based on long-standing claims encapsulated in an ambiguous “nine-dash line” enclosing virtually all of the South China Sea.

Beijing’s stance regarding South China Sea sovereignty issues is categorical and steadfast. In a position paper rejecting outright the Philippines’ recent initiation of international arbitration regarding their bilateral dispute, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs states,

“China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands (the Dongsha [Pratas] Islands, Xisha [Paracel] Islands, the Zhongsha Islands [whose main features include Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal] and the Nansha [Spratly] Islands) and the adjacent waters.”

Despite all its rhetoric, actions, developmental efforts, and apparent preparations, however, China has repeatedly declined to disclose the precise basis for, the precise nature of, or even the precise geographical parameters of its South China Sea claims. As the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence documents, China “has never published the coordinates of the “nine-dash line” that it draws around virtually the entire South China Sea—perilously close to the coasts of its neighbors, all of whom it has disputes with. It has not “declared what rights it purports to enjoy in this area.”* Beijing still has not specified whether or not it considers the South China Sea to constitute a “core interest.” Given China’s statements and actions to date, however, there is reason for concern that it is determined to maintain expansive claims based on unyielding invocation of the “nine-dash line.” … …


Biography and disclaimer:

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor in the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. Since 2008, he has been an associate in research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Erickson is the author of Chinese Antiship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation, 2013). He is coauthor of two other books: Gulf of Aden Anti-piracy and China’s Maritime Commons Presence (Jamestown, 2015) and Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions (National Defense University, 2014). Erickson’s coauthored Foreign Affairs online article, “Not-So-Empty Talk: The Danger of China’s ‘New Type of Great-Power Relations’ Slogan,” has been read widely in U.S. and Asian policy circles. He runs the research website www.andrewerickson.com and co-runs www.chinasignpost.com.

The opinions expressed herein are the personal views of the author and are not meant to represent the official views of the Department of the Navy or any other agency of the federal government. The text differs in minor ways from that published online by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.


    Given that China is a brutal, totalitarian country that persecutes Christians and is rapidly building a powerful military and is basically against everything the US is supposed to stand for, could some of the big thinkers at the US Naval War College please tell me why we are trading with China, selling them dual-use technology, and building them into a superpower? Then we borrow over a
    trillion dollars from China in order to build up our military in Asia to check
    China’s new military that they would not have if we hadn’t built them up in the
    first place! We are also educating thousands of their students at our universities, making it easier for them to steal our technology as well as training their future engineers that will build their weapons. Does this sound stupid yet?

    Do you guys really think the US could win a big war with China, a country with over a billion people? This war would likely require a draft to win, and if the American public couldn’t stomach the losses in Vietnam, what makes you think the American public will be able to stomach the losses of a war with a country of over a billion people? A majority of draft age Americans couldn’t find Taiwan or the South China Sea on a map, let alone want to die for them. China knows this, if you don’t.

    What will prevent war with China? Truth in the face of evil. Stop trading with China, stop selling them our technology, stop educating their students, stop giving their military ship tours and tours of other military facilities and maybe American kids in the future won’t have to die fighting a war with China that never had to happen in the first place. Thank you!!!!!

  • John Smith

    Dr Erickson

    There is one American alive today who is responsible for this strategic error.

    He was aware of the Chinese use of lethal force to seize Paracel from South VN.

    Without reflecting on their imperial plan – detailed in Zhou En-Lai’s 1951 shrill statement that all SCS islands ‘belong to China’, he committed three major errors which have repercussions for today’s events:

    1) He gave instructions for the 7th Fleet to distance from the naval engagement

    2) He called in the Chinese Ambassador to reassure him that ‘the USA takes no position’ on sovereignty issues. In effect, he continued the disengagement for which he collected the Nobel Prize; however, in the process, he tacitly acceded to PRC’s open application of lethal force to settle territorial disputes in the SCS.

    3) He masterminded the USA’s blocking of then SVN’s plan to lodge a protest note at the UN.

    His mind was dead-set focused on the China-USSR-USA triangle power play.

    Unfortunately, that set a precedent for the hands-off ‘I’m not bothered’ approach until recently.

    The mindset of the Chinese is measured in decades, if not centuries. Their own turbulent history taught them much about how to play / how to fool superior adversaries.

    They want nothing than a return to the Middle Kingdom scenario with a powerful, dictating Zhong Guo in the center with pliant tributary states on the periphery.

    Come to think of it the DIY 9-dash line is eerily similar to an Emperor’s broad brushes claiming for himself what he desires – limited only by his (growing) power.

    Now, who was that statesman ?