Why No One Wins a War over the South China Sea

That’s the title of my latest piece in The National Interest. (over the fold)The central point is brilliantly summed up in this clip from Utopia.

A recent near-collision between Chinese and US Navy destroyers has focused new attention on the potential for conflict in the South China Sea and led to the cancellation of a visit to China by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.


China’s naval expansion in the South China Sea puts it in a position to control sea lanes used transport trillions of dollars worth of goods per year, accounting for up to a third of world merchandise trade. China has militarized islands and claimed most of the Sea as its own territorial waters, on the basis of flimsy historical claims and routinely denounced US naval operations in the region as illegal provocations.

Unsurprisingly, the response to Chinese assertiveness from much of the foreign policy community has been to demand a similarly assertive response from the United States. For example, Robert Kagan has argued that the US must resist the extension of a Chinese sphere of influence in its immediate vicinity.

Backing Into World War III

A realist perspective suggests a more cautious approach, and a more careful analysis of the economic issues. A rational assessment suggests that China has far more at stake in this issue than the US.

The crucial, but commonly neglected, fact about trade flowing through the  South China Sea is that the great majority of this trade flows to and from China. That makes control of the South China Sea a crucial national interest for China, since a hostile power could potentially choke off most imports and exports.  But obviously, China has no interest in disrupting its own trade. By contrast, the only direct interest of the US is in the abstract principle of freedom of naval operations.

Moreover, while the US military is far more powerful in global terms, the balance of forces is much more even in regional terms.  Conflict between powers of comparable strength will generally be resolved in favor of the side with the greater commitment.


The South China Sea is also important to US allies including Japan and Korea, as it is part of the cheapest route for importing oil and other resources. It is not, however, the only route. It has been estimated that diverting imports might cost $600 million a year for Japan, and $270 million a year  for South Korea.


That’s a lot of money. But compared to the potential cost of the Trump Administration’s trade policy, it’s trivial. The US imports $40 billion in cars from Japan and $10 billion from Korea. The 25 per cent tariff now under consideration, would cost Japan $10 billion a year and Korea $2.5 billion.

So, we are in the strange position where the US is deploying massive naval forces to deter a purely hypothetical threat to its Asian partners and allies, while making actual threats to impose much greater economic damage on those some partners and allies.

Similar points may be made about the Trump’s Administration withdrawal from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. From the viewpoint of the Obama Administration, which pushed the deal, the central geopolitical rationale was to set up an economic structure that marginalised China. Trump’s decision to pull out would have made sense as part of a rapprochement with China. However, the Administration’s trade policy has effectively put allies and rivals in the same camp.

A rational policy would dial down threats on both the trade war and naval rivalry and focus on issues of common interest to everyone in the region, most obviously the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Even without the added complications created by the Trump Administration, such a policy seems a long way off.

The gradual expansion of Chinese power in the South China Sea has caused great alarm. However, it should be less alarming than the looming prospect of a trade war, in which the US will be fighting alone.



19 thoughts on “Why No One Wins a War over the South China Sea

  1. What’s wrong with good old containment? The countries with most to fear from Chinese assertiveness are the same ones that were worried a thousand years ago, the neighbours.

    The area illustrates the geopolitical calming effect of the energy transition, which will largely remove dependence on vulnerable imports of oil, gas and coal. Vietnam has been dropping various plans for new coal power stations, allegedly in response to local opposition, and Taiwan is going gangbusters on offshore wind. I’m pretty sure their military staffs have been weighing in on these decisions.

  2. No, China will NOT have a greater capacity to control the sea lanes in the SCS. Control of the disputed islands wiill not change that, nor is it intended to.
    This is about access to the resources under the sea. Whoever owns those islands owns the EEZ around them.
    China does not want control of the sea lanes. Why would it? It serves no purpose.

  3. I think that the world should continue to register its opposition to China’s annexation of 90% of the South China Sea. It is an appalling, illegal action. But it is done and there is no way to immediately reverse it – certainly not by military means other than by insisting on rights to free passage. China has the power and has exerted it. As a Chinese friend snapped when I questioned the action “It is done”. One of course should keep in mind that China, in the future, will continue to act in this aggressive, unprincipled way as its power grows.

  4. If the government is interested in real security rather than fake or potentially anti-security which involves frigates. (It’s harder to become involved in international conflicts when you don’t have any ships to send to them — although I was impressed by Australia’s offer of ships to fight an almost entirely landlocked country back in 1990.) Then the government should immediately act to reduce oil consumption by the nation’s road transport. It’s win win win win win win:

    1. Less oil imports means Australia is more secure from supply disruptions.
    2. Less air pollution from vehicles means longer average lifespans, higher quality of life, and lower health costs.
    3. Reduced greenhouse gas emissions means fewer Australians die from the effects of climate change and other nations will be destabilized by climate change less.
    4. Reduced spending on oil products will make us effectively richer.
    5. It will increase the rate at which the world substitutes away from oil.

  5. I was going to mention that having their oil revenue reduced may force some oppressive regimes to change for the better, but since changing for the worse is a possibility I didn’t include it in the list.

  6. That’s the problem with naming seas after countries. They think they own them.

    Just wait until India claims the entire Indian Ocean.

  7. We need to consider John Mearsheimer’s “offensive realism” theory. Here is a summary from Wikipedia.

    “(1) Great powers are the main actors in world politics and the international system is anarchical.
    (2) All states possess some offensive military capability.
    (3) States can never be certain of the intentions of other states.
    (4) States have survival as their primary goal.
    (5) States are rational actors, capable of coming up with sound strategies that maximize their prospects for survival.”

    This requires a few definitions and caveats. By “anarchical” it is meant that there is no higher power (on earth or elsewhere) to intervene in great power disputes. This excludes blind and massive forces of nature which could intervene catstrophically. By “rational” a level of “bounded rationality” is meant. But if logical “look-ahead” fails and unforeseen consequences ensue, then even bounded rationality can look like stupidity in hindsight.

    Unpacking the above, the great powers will do as much as they can for their own perceived self-interest and survival. Their only check is fear of other great powers.

    J.Q. is right. No-one wins a war over the South China Sea. China has clearly and correctly calculated on this. They have concluded that they can go forward with asserting control over the SCS. The situation is much the same for China as it is for the USA when it comes to seaboards and regional seas. The US would never tolerate any challenge to its control of the Caribbean, nor of its two seaboards. China, as a great power is asserting the same regional “rights” as any great power does as a matter of realpolitiks or power politics. The SCS is important both for its resources and for its sea-lanes on which China is still very dependent.

    At the same time, China is working on all aspects the OBOR (One Belt One Road) project. “”Belt” refers to the overland routes, or the Silk Road Economic Belt; whereas “road” refers to the sea routes, or the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.” It’s a strategy of redundancy or back-up. China intends to have two major trade routes or lanes to prevent strategic strangulation of its imports and exports.

    A few commenters above have mentioned containment. That is still the name of the game from the US and Nato view. The wise thing to do with a containment strategy is contain at the natural containment lines. The natural containment lines of China follow a line along the western shores (and/or western and northern borders of Japan, Sth Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Burma. Then there is the Himalayas ring with India sitting strategically behind it. To the north, China is contained, to some extent by desert and by Russia, an uneasy ally at best. The idea is to keep the natural containment line.

    Should China be contained? Yes, for sure, just as the USA, Russia and the EU should be contained. We want no single great power dominating the world. The short-lived unipolar world of the USA as sole superpower was very damaging.

    The most difficult part of containment is deciding where the real red line is. Is Taiwan a red line or should the world eventually concede Taiwan to China as well? China is also trying to prise the Philippines from any alliance with the West and bring it into the Chinese orbit. Equally China is trying to make diplomatic and trade inroads into Burma. But overall, China can and will be contained at least for the next 50 years. Given how much climate change and other ecological problems will change the world, it’s not possible to predict much beyond that. However, China will suffer seriously from climate change. Indeed, many nations will probably be too busy fighting climate change and environmental collapse to think too much about fighting each other.

  8. @Mike The resources under the sea are a furphy, IMO. People have been going on about the oil under the Spratley’s for decades. If anyone really believed it, they’d be keen to cut a deal instead of the endless posturing we’ve seen.
    In this context, it’s worth noting that claims like this are always made in disputes of this kind. There was lots of talk about oil in the Falklands/Malvinas, but nothing ever came of it AFAIK.

  9. We need to consider John Mearsheimer’s “offensive realism” theory.

    I’m puzzled about the basis for this assertion. In my whole life I’ve never considered John Mearsheimer’s ‘offensive realism’ theory, and I suspect that’s true of nearly everybody in the world, so it’s not obvious to me why anybody needs to consider it.

    If I were writing a postgraduate thesis in international relations and my supervisor said to me ‘You need to consider John Mearsheimer’s “offensive realism” theory’, I would feel that I understood why that was being said. But I’m not, so I’m having trouble getting over how odd that assertion seems.

  10. I’ve also never considered John Mearsheimer’s theory, or even heard of him. But his Wikipedia page suggests that he has had quite a distinguished career as an international relations scholar, so maybe his theory is worth considering.

  11. Always lots of talk about oil in the Falklands, but apparently it wasn’t worthwhile developing back when oil was over $100 a barrel and Falkland Oil & Gas was unable to prevent being bought out for song. (A song and 31 pence a share.) And now it is supposed to be worth developing at $74 and with the E. Musk finally managing to produce significant amounts of mid-price electric cars? There are small deposits of oil all over the world, but they are generally expensive to extract and probably not worth it given the shift away from oil that’s already occurring in the developed world.

  12. I have a degree in International Relations, and I’ve never considered Mearsheimer’s theory (which is an elaboration on much older “realism’ theories) particularly realistic. The evidence does not give credence to hypotheses that states (or people) are rational without major qualifications around the concept of rationality; that states are unitary actors; that “survival” is definable in terms of states (rather than of the people making them up); or that certainty is required to act in what is not – although lacking a sovereign – an “anarchic” system. If you torture the definitions enough, you can make it make sense. It makes for nice theory, but the real world refuses to conform.

  13. “We need to consider it” doesn’t mean “we need to accept it after we’ve considered it”. We could consider it and dismiss it as a load of old cobblers.

    We also don’t need to consider it for very long, if we do consider it.

  14. Peter T,

    I briefly sketched out the definition for “anarchic” and the qualification for “rational”. I am intrigued what theories the I.R. field offers when it comes to nation-state struggles and rivalries. Or do nation-states not exist in these theories just as society does not exist in Thatcherism?

    My position (and not just mine) is that complex systems exist and demonstrate emergent system behaviours. If we deny the existence of systems and insist only on “atomism”, then there are no oceans (only water molecules, salt ions etc.), there is no atmosphere, there is no weather and there are no societies. Indeed there are no persons as persons are only atoms. As a reductio ad absurdum there are no atoms either, only sub-atomic particles and so on maybe to “strings” or energy. Equally as mistaken, in philosophical terms, is the arbitrary ruling in of some systems as valid entities for consideration and analysis (persons) and the ruling out of other systems (e.g nation states) without any examination of the possible contradictory ontological assumptions involved.

    The “unitary actor” requirement itself needs definition before application. To be pedantic about persons, are persons unitary actors or are they bundles of (sometimes contradictory) instincts, appetites, autonomic and somatic nervous systems, executive brain functions and so on?

    Nation states exist as identifiable systems with observable characteristics and some predictability of variables and actions. States do demonstrate directed, concerted actions at many times, even continuously in many senses, (always without one hundred percent agreement or participation of all persons in the nation state). These are clear emergent phenomena in this world being, as it is, a complex system of many complex sub-systems.

  15. One of the effects of operations by warships and naval aircraft (just as it is also one of the effects of land-based military operations) is the channelling of government funds to defence industries to pay for supplies, equipment, repairs, refurbishment, refitting, and ultimately replacements. It seems reasonable to ask whether this channelling of government funds to defence industries produces benefits for the people who make the decisions to conduct the operations; if it does, it seems reasonable to ask whether those benefits are all the explanation the decisions require.

    Those considerations are general ones, which apply in particular both to the naval operations in the South China Sea that are actually being conducted by China and to the ones that are actually being conducted by the US.

    It would be possible for US operations in the South China Sea or for Chinese operations there to disrupt trade; however, the operations they have actually been conducting have had, apparently, no such effect. It seems reasonable to consider the possibility that neither China nor the US has any intention of actually disrupting trade.

    If the people who make the decisions in the US are interested in the benefits they derive from channelling government funds into defence industries, that’s probably something they want to draw attention away from, and that’s probably true of the people who make the decisions in China as well. They’d probably rather people were talking about other things, such as strategic interests, legal claims and principles, and national sovereignty and prestige. The more abstract and vague the discussion, the better it would serve as a distraction. That’s exactly what I observe in John Quiggin’s clip from Utopia.

    What do you think Mearsheimer might say about that, Ikonoclast?

  16. Ikonoclast

    Nobody is insisting on atomism. The difference between physics and societies is that physics consists of a small number of parts tightly tied together; societies consist of lots of parts loosely tied. The resulting complexity can only be analysed in its particulars. For instance, Mearsheimer’s point 4 on survival – lots of states have voluntarily merged with others (a lot have been merged, of course), from the Act of Union to the EU. This is not the result of some emergent process but of the calculations of various parties under particular conditions.

    For that matter, it’s not at all obvious just what a “state” is – it’s less an objective condition than partaking in a family resemblance.

  17. Peter T.,

    For sure, Mearsheimer’s basic thesis hovers in that uncertain zone between descriptive and prescriptive theory. I ask myself at times if it is appealing to my realism or my cynicism.

    Physics in its reductionist sense “consists of a small number of parts tightly tied together” at least if one is talking about atomic or sub-atomic physics. Going in the other direction, up to macro systems, and the cosmos, physics consists (I would argue) of everything, including societies. It’s the complexity of emergent phenomena which baffles us. As I have said before on this blog, as soon as we create a theory of a social-ideational system, the theory itself enters into the system and ramifies it.

  18. I think what may happen in areas of continental shelf that people want to fight over is, oil deposits are not willed into existence, but instead willed into importance. Given a large enough area of continental shelf there are almost bound to be some hydrocarbon resources in it although the chances of them being economically viable are very small. Those who want to fight can point to their presence as a justification for getting people killed while those who aren’t in favor of killing assume the oil deposits must actually be economically viable, otherwise why would people be willing to get other people killed over them? I call this Ronald’s Green Lantern theory of disputed oil resource importance.

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