When the elephants dance….China, the United States and the South China Sea, by Geoffrey Till

Tuesday, 16 August 2011 02:34 tuan anh

This paper will focus on the symbolic aspect of this island dispute for China and for the United States, a country that is not a claimant but which appears nevertheless to be getting ever more involved in the conduct of the dispute and in discussions about its final possible resolution


Many accounts of the current South China Sea dispute focus on its legal dimension, or the resource issues, or the light it sheds on the relationship within ASEAN or between its members and China. This paper, instead, will focus on the symbolic aspect of this island dispute for China and for the United States, a country that is not a claimant but which appears nevertheless to be getting ever more involved in the conduct of the dispute and in discussions about its final possible resolution. This is partly because of the manner in which Americans in general, and the US Navy in particular, think about the concept of the freedom of the seas. This is not ‘just’ a legal issue. It is much more a matter of philosophy and culture and is markedly different from the Chinese perspective on such matters. The paper will end with some brief speculations about the implications of this for the dispute and for the various countries involved in it.

Islands: Why They Matter

On the face of it, the attention paid to the prospective ownership of a group of tiny islands, reefs and shoals would often seem disproportionate to their intrinsic value. But, despite this, disputes over the ownership of islands around the world do indeed seem to generate disproportionate excitement and heat, sometimes (as in the case of the Falkland islands) with fatal consequences. There seem to be four main sets of reasons for this, but this paper will focus on the last.

Legal Ambiguity and Disagreement

There is no dispute between France and the UK over the ownership of the Channel Islands because all parties accept that the Treaty of Kingston of 1217 effectively resolved the issue, despite later changes. Interestingly, there is a degree of very mild disagreement over the extent of the waters these islands generate, because these were not made clear in the treaty in question. It is an obvious point, but one nevertheless worth making, that island disputes only occur when there is no agreement about their history and/or their legal status, and both sides actively seek the matter to be resolved in their favour. Only then do disagreements become disputes. This does not apply to Antarctica, for example.  


Among the main reasons for the fact that the ownership of the islands and the waters of the South China Sea is so intractable a dispute are their fish stocks and energy potential. The whole world is engaged in an anxious search for the future food and energy resources that just might be found in or below the waters of the South China Sea. Estimates of the resources likely to be found there vary widely, but there are at least perceptions that a great deal could be at stake. These resources, assuming in the case of oil and gas that they actually exist to the extent sometimes believed, are increasingly important economically. Paradoxically though, the lack of agreement about their ownership makes it more difficult to properly exploit such resources as these islands and waters may generate.

Pride and National Honour

Jurisdiction over islands is peculiarly sensitive because it symbolizes the authority and the reputation of claimant states, both domestically and internationally. Because islands are necessarily remote from the centres of government, they are seen as general ‘performance indicators’ of a regime’s capacity to rule effectively. This is why the dispute over the Falkland islands was so important to the governments of both Argentina and the UK; what was at stake was not simply a matter of jurisdiction over distant islands, but the reputation, even the survival as it turned out, of the two conflicting regimes. This partly was because, in the modern media age, the people at large cannot be excluded from such complex issues – and they often seem to be more nationalistic even if less informed than their governments. This would also seem to be the case in regard to the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu and Takeshima/Tokdo islands.

Pride and honour may be quite unrelated to the legal status of the islands, the value of the resources they might generate or even their strategic value. One of the reasons why Argentina invaded the Falklands was through a very understandable and indeed accurate sense that basically much of the British establishment had concluded that the Falkland Islands were not worth bothering about and so would not bestir themselves to take them back. Paradoxically, Argentina’s Operation Rosario changed everything. Taking the islands back, even if with no very clear idea about what would happen afterwards, became a strategic imperative for the British, simply because someone had taken the islands away from them in the first place. Precipitant military moves often seem to have this consequence.

Strategic significance

Islands can be valuable strategically. In the Falklands campaign, for example, Ascension island proved strategically critical as a mid-way base for storing, refuelling and re-brigading British forces. But they can equally well be a strategic liability because, if their ownership is contested, they have to be defended with military resources that might be better deployed elsewhere, and they may get governments into a strategic bind they would rather avoid. Even with their proximity to important sea lines of communication, the strategic value of the islands of the South China Sea is dubious given their small size and the fact that so much of the area is regarded by navigators as ‘dangerous ground.’ Interestingly, they served very little strategic purpose in either of the two biggest wars fought in the area in the last century – the Second World War and the Vietnam war. Arguably, though, the PLA[N]’s investment in its new base at Sanya on Hainan island confers more such strategic significance on the area because it offers more defence-in-depth to the military resources deployed further north.

But estimating the strategic value of anything, islands included, is very much a matter of what some have called ‘strategic culture’, of perception and historic practice rather than of objective reality. This quasi-symbolic aspect of the South China Sea dispute and the correspondingly growing involvement of the United States deserves more attention than it has received to date.


In the past, the United States has repeatedly stated that it takes no position on the ownership of the islands of the South China Sea, that it wants to see the matter resolved peacefully and that neither the dispute nor its resolution should interfere with the principle of free navigation in the area. Insufficient attention has been paid to this last caveat.

This is not simply a formulaic re-statement of a long held belief that lawful merchant and naval shipping should be allowed to sail around the world’s oceans without interference ; it goes instead to the very heart of the United States as a country and is central to the whole ethos of the US Navy. The defence of this principle was, after all, the reason why the United States decided to go to war with Britain in 1812 and helped determine America’s entry into the First World War and, for all their reservations, on Britain’s side this time, in 1917.

The continued salience of this essential point becomes clear when one looks at one of the US Navy’s most recent doctrinal publications, theNaval Operations Concept 2010.[1]This short unclassified publication has the subtitle ‘Implementing the Maritime Strategy and is intended to be an operational follow-up to the ‘A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower’ publication which appeared in October 2007.[2]

The standard and general US view of the freedom of the seas is clearly if briefly stated:

The unhindered movement of energy resources, commodities and durable goods by sea is the foundation of the global economic system and of every nation’s prosperity to a large extent.[3]

Threats to the free movement of the shipping on which the peace and prosperity of the world are seen to depend come from a spectrum of threats that range from maritime crime and disorder at one end of the spectrum to inter-state conflict at the other.

The difficulty for some countries comes when we move from broad American statements of the objective to more focused discussion of the means, although the first of these, the notion of a maritime partnership of all interested parties, attracts relatively little adverse comment.

Multinational Maritime Co-operation

Because the world ocean, to use the Russian term, is so vast, defending ‘the commons’ against such threats requires the collaboration of maritime forces [both navies and coastguards] around the world:

Global maritime security can only be achieved through the integration of national and regional maritime cooperation, awareness and response initiatives.[4]

The resultant emphasis on an all-embracing global maritime partnership is the main theme, indeed of CS21 and has generally been welcomed around the world. Admiral Mike Mullen made the same collaborative point back in 2005,

Today’s reality is that the security arrangements and paradigms of the past are no longer enough for the future. And today’s challenges are too diverse to tackle alone; they require more capability and more resources than any single nation can deliver.[5]

‘Trust and cooperation’ says CS21 ‘cannot be surged.’ They have to be built and sustained over time, through the development of increased understanding amongst U.S. maritime forces and the forging of international partnerships. The document’s discussion of naval diplomacy accordingly focuses on coalition-building, with the Global Maritime Partnership initiative being its most significant expression.[6]This becomes one of the Navy’s six strategic imperatives and is clearly crucial to two of its six core capabilities, namely Maritime Security and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response. It is worth making the point that a country’s reluctance to participate in such multilateral, collective system-defence measures can easily be over- or mis-interpreted in Washington.

Maritime Domain Awareness

The same sense of the vastness of the task increases the need for the capacity to monitor what is going on across the oceans as far as possible, because that will make cost-effective proactive responses to emerging threats more possible. Accordingly,

A key cooperative initiative to enhance global awareness is the national and international effort to improve maritime domain awareness (MDA)…the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment of a nation.[7]

Hence, the American stress on all aspects of maritime surveillance that lead to such difficulties as the USS Impeccable incident last year.[8]

Forward Presence

With this, we get to the heart of what the US Navy really understands as the essential dimension of the notion of the freedom of the seas:

The Naval service uses the sea as maneuver space. Mobility and manoeuvrability constitute the Naval Service’s primary operational attributes. [9]

The ability to go anywhere and do anything, consistent with international law, to the extent of their capabilities is what the US believes navies are all about. This operational freedom, flexibility and adaptability is their main advantage over land and air forces but depends absolutely on the untrammeled freedom of the seas. It allows ‘sea-basing’:

…the deployment, assembly, command, projection, reconstitution, and re-deployment of joint power from the sea, without reliance on land bases within the operational area.[10]

The world ocean as the world’s greatest manoeuvre space critically facilitates the kind of forward presence of naval forces that is seen as helping to shape the strategic environment proactively:

The combination of forward stationed and rotationally deployed forces is a uniquely adaptable means to maintain global military presence while respecting the sovereignty of other nations.[11]

The kind of forward presence required depends on the circumstances of the particular area. “Globally distributed, mission-tailored forces” are designed to cope with a wide range of lower order missions that ‘promote stability, prevent crises, and combat terrorism.’ “Regionally concentrated credible combat power” on the other hand is required for the ‘harder’ tasks of protecting U.S. vital interests; assuring its friends; ‘…and (to) deter, dissuade, and if necessary, defeat potential adversaries.’[12]

In the latter case, and the latter case only, the requirement for sea control comes into play :

The ability of U.S. naval forces to establish local and regional sea control is fundamental to exploiting the maritime domain as maneuver space, protecting critical sea lines of communication, and projecting and sustaining combat power overseas.[13]

The freedom of the seas is absolutely essential to this understanding of what sea power is and what navies are for. Hence the acute sensitivity within the U.S. Navy to anything that might limit that freedom, whether this derives from unwelcome interpretations of international maritime law,[14]or the appearance of a politically non-permissive environment or the kind of anti-access, area denial (A2AD) strategies allegedly being prepared by the PLA[N].[15]

The importance of this concept in US naval thinking explains why in the past the Americans have engaged in freedom of navigation exercises ‘with attitude’ in the past, such as the Gulf of Sirte cruises of the mid 1980s and the bumping incident involving the USS Caron and a Soviet warship in the Black Sea in 1988.[16]


Because such detailed statements of American naval thinking are freely available it is relatively easy for others to understand their conceptions of seapower. This is much more difficult when, as in the case of the PLA[N], that doctrinal understanding is not available and when what China thinks about such issues can only be inferred from their actions, or indeed from the views of the growing unofficial naval ‘commentariat’ now appearing in China, some of whose statements seem different from, and sometimes distinctly hostile to American conceptions of seapower.[17]Where the Americans tend to think of the ‘world ocean’ in global terms, acutely sensitive to the way in which a precedent established in one area could well be applied elsewhere, the Chinese seem often a much more local view, in particular seeing themselves as encircled by foreign forces in local seas. [18]

The harsh tone of China’s response to the projected but cancelled presence of the US carrier George Washington in an exercise with the ROK Navy in the Yellow Sea and by subsequent editorials in the Global Times the English language version of the official People’s Daily, illustrate the point. The latter said:

China undoubtedly needs to build a highly credible anti-carrier capacity....Not only does China need an anti-ship ballistic missile, but also other carrier-killing measures...Since US aircraft carrier battle groups in the Pacific constitute deterrence against China’s strategic interests, China has to possess the capacity to counterbalance.[19]

Such comments give credence to the American suspicion that China by a combination of technological, diplomatic and legal initiatives is in effect seeking to establish a kind of Monroe doctrine for the East and South China Seas, a proposition to which the United States is bound to respond negatively, partlyu because of the range of its sea-dependent interest in East Asia and partly because of its possible impact elelsewhere.

As far as the narrower issue of the islands themselves is concerned, and so far as we can tell, China regards the South China Sea dispute as an internal matter in which outsiders, especially ones which admit to having no claim on the area, have no business in becoming involved and which can only further complicate an already complex affair. But the point is that in their concern for the freedom of the seas, the Americans feel they do have a major stake in the matter, especially given such incidents as the harassing of the USNS Impeccable.This proceeded from China’s having a radically different conception of the extent to which high seas freedoms extend into the coastal zone.

As the US Chief of Naval Operations remarked,

I am not sure that China and the US will agree on the law that applies to the exclusive economic Zone. We interpret the law to allow us to do military surveillance operations in the zone; they interpret the law to make the zone more exclusive of all things. I think…that we are going to disagree on the interpretation of the law.[20]

It could well be that Hillary Clinton’s recent re-affirmation of America’s ‘national interest’ in the area was the direct consequence of the Impeccable affair and makes US ‘intervention’ in the South China sea more likely, not less.[21]

The result of such differing perceptions may be a significant under-estimate of the stake one side or the other, or most likely both, have in the resolution of the South China Sea dispute. It may also lead to unwanted tensions in the conduct of normal maritime business elsewhere. When to this is added a whole range of other tensions between the two countries over such things as arms sales to Taiwan, Nobel prize winners and human rights, the valuation of the yuan, rare earth minerals, the projected exercise of the USS George Washington in the Yellow Sea and so forth the need for a closer not more distant mutual understanding becomes clear.[22]Against this background, it is easy to see how the South China Sea issue could degenerate further.

Conclusion: Problems when the elephants dance?

Essentially, the South China Sea dispute is about the legal and historic status of the islands and waters of the area. But for both China and the United States much bigger issues are involved as well. This baggage indeed complicates what is already a difficult set of issues and could make the resolution of the dispute, not a very likely prospect in the first place, even more remote; it could even make the problem more difficult to manage and so exacerbate regional tensions still further. Certainly no country in the area would welcome a level of tension between the two great powers that forced them to make a choice between the two, and the worse these relations become the greater the probability that this might happen.

On the other hand some countries in the region might well see a more activist US presence in the dispute as a welcome counter-balance to an increasingly assertive China.[23]Either way, there is clearly little point in bemoaning the intrusion of these much bigger strategic issues, which arise whether one likes it or not. Instead it would seem wiser for all parties concerned to avoid essentially counter-productive escalations of an already tense situation, to redouble their efforts to understand the viewpoints or other countries and patiently to explain their own as transparently as they can./.

Author’s biography

Geoffrey Till is the Professor of Maritime Studies at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and a member of the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London. He is the Director of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies.

In addition to many articles and chapters on various aspects of maritime strategy and policy defence, he is the author of a number of books. His most recent are The Development of British Naval Thinking published by Routledge in 2006 and Seapower: A Guide for the 21st Century the second edition of which was published by Routledge in 2009. He is currently working on a study of naval development in the Asia-Pacific region.

In 2007 he was a Senior Research Fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore and in 2008 the inaugural Sir Howard Kippenberger Visiting Chair in Strategic Studies at the Victoria University of Wellington. In November 2009 he returned to the Rajaratnam School as Visiting Professor.


[1]General James T. Conway, Commandant US Marine Corps, Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations and Admiral Thad W. Allen, Commandant US Coast Guard, Naval Operations Concept 2010. (Washington: Department of the Navy, July 2010) – hereinafter NOC2010

[2]General James T Conway, Commandant of the US Marine Corps, Admiral Gary Roughead [Chief of Naval Operations] and Admiral Thad W.Allen Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard, ‘A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower’ [henceforth CS21] (Washington: Department of the Navy, Oct 2007.)

[3]NOC21010, p 52. Author’s emphasis.

[4]NOC2010, op cit p 36

[5]Admiral Mike Mullen, in John B. Hattendorf, Seventeenth Annual Seapower Symposium: Report of Proceedings [Newport: Naval war College Press, 2005] p 5.

[6]Christopher J Castelli, ‘New Maritime Strategy Would emphasize Soft and Hard Power’ Inside the Navy 18 June 2007; VAdm John G Morgan and Rear Admiral Charles W Martoglio, ‘The 1,000-ship Navy Global Maritime Network’ Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, Nov 2005

[7]NOC2010, op cit p 15

[8]Michael Perkinson, ‘Collision Course: China and US make waves in South China Sea’ Jane’s Intelligence Review May 2009. ‘China navy criticizes dispatch of US destroyers: state media’ AFP electronic report accessed in http://www.spacewar.com/reports 16 Mar 2009.

[9]NOC2010, op cit, p 14.

[10]NOC2010, op cit p 21

[11]NOC2010, op cit p29

[12]NOC2010, op cit, p 32

[13]NOC2010, op cit, p 57

[14]For a vigorous statement of the US position on this in regard to the USNS Impeccable see James Kraska, ‘Sovereignty at sea’ Survival Vol 51, No 3, Jun-July 2009, pp 13-18.

[15]Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2009 (Washington D.C.:Department of Defense, 2009) pp 20-24. See also Andrew S Erickson and David D Yang, Using the Land to Control the Sea? Chinese Analysts Consider the Antiship Ballistic Missile’ in US Naval War College Review, Autumn 2009, pp 37-86. This discusses the significance of a number of papers produced to this effect by China’s National Defence University. Eric Hagt and Mathew Durnin, China’s Anti-ship Ballistic Missiles, US Naval War College Review Autumn 2009, pp 87-115. P 91.

[16]This latter was resolved by a Us-Soviet agreement signed 23 September 1989 at Jackson Hole, Wyoming in which the Soviets agreed on the right of foreign warships to transit territorial waters on ‘innocent passage’ and in return the US undertook not to engage in more of such freedom of navigation exercises. At issue in this case were foreign rights in the territorial sea not the EEZ.

[17]For an authoritative American view of the impact of strategic culture on Chinese naval thinking see, Toshi Yoshihara and James R Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy’ (Annapolis: Naval Institute press, 2010) pp 14-43, 154- 162.

[18]Ibid, pp 109-110 on the perceived Aegis threat .

[19]Staff Writers AFP Beijing, 7 Sep 2010 ‘China Needs ‘carrier-killer missile: press’ citing Global Times 6 Sep 2010.

[20]Admiral Gary Roughead, Interview, Defense News 4 May 2009.

[21]Brantly Womack, ‘Vietnam: Friend Yes, ally No’ Defense News 27 Sep 2010.

[22]‘Washington adds China to Clinton’s Asia-Pacific Tour’, Global Times, 28 Oct 2010.

[23]This would seem to include Vietnam. The arrival of the USS John S McCain at Da Nang followed a scolding Chinese rejection of Vietnamese complaints about Chinese naval exercises around the Paracel/Xisha islands. ‘Vietnam and U.S. Edge Closer, Thanks to China’ Defense News 16 Aug 2010.

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