As the Philippines seeks to internationalize its South China Sea (SCS) dispute with Beijing through an arbitration tribunal in The Hague, it would prove useful to remember what U.S. stakes are in the sea’s contested waters. Three interests of prime concern to the United States include freedom of navigation, preservation of peace through adherence to international law and norms, and the maintenance of a favorable balance of power in the region. While China is by no means the only nation that has taken a strong approach to SCS disputes, it is the only regional country with enough combined leverage to directly challenge these U.S. interests.

China’s challenge to the United States’ freedom of navigation is tied to the U.S. military’s right to conduct intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) along China’s coastal EEZ.[1] The U.S. position states that ISR vessels are not subject to coastal jurisdiction or control of the coastal state’s EEZ, and entitled to sovereign immunity. In contrast, Beijing asserts that U.S. ISR missions in China’s EEZ are non-peaceful military activities that impede on China’s rights as a coastal state, and represent a lingering “Cold War” mentality.[2] In recent years Beijing has directly challenged the U.S. military’s exercise of this presumed right. Recent examples include the harassment of the USNS Impeccable surveillance ship, and a recent 2013 episode involving a PLA Navy (PLAN) vessel that swung across the bow of the USS Cowpens.[3] It seems reasonable that these challenges to U.S. freedom of navigation may increase in frequency along with PLAN’s own advancing capabilities.

The U.S. interest in promoting stability through regional adherence to international law is one that is directly endangered through China’s 9-dash line. The most relevant international law is the UN Commission on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is meant to preserve every nation’s (including the U.S.) right to freedom of navigation, commerce, and legal exploitation of resources outside of legitimate EEZs. Under UNCLOS, states are entitled to exclusive rights to resources within their EEZ, which extends 200 nautical miles from all habitable islands and the relevant continental shore. In other words, claims to water resources in an EEZ are based on land features, and cannot be made without this proper basis.[4] China’s claim to maritime rights in all waters inside of the 9-dash line and its efforts to enforce such claims through coercion are direct challenges to UNCLOS, which Beijing has ratified.[5] This issue first came to a head at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum, where then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed the U.S. facilitation of dialogue between claimants and also declared a U.S. national interest in all parties respecting international law.[6] China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reacted by first storming out of the forum, and then declaring to all present that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”[7] This statement should not be easily dismissed as heated rhetoric. At the very least, it must be taken as the underlying prejudice many of China’s policymakers may have and express in their private councils. In effect, China’s coercive statements and actions suggest that Beijing seeks special privileges simply because of its size and power.

Last but not least, an overarching strategic interest of the United States is the maintenance of a favorable balance of power in the SCS and East Asia. This interest stems from the strategic desire to prevent any one competitor from challenging America’s access to vital markets, resources, and technologies, or using such resources against American interests elsewhere.[8] It is clear that the PRC has utilized this type of leverage before in order to pressure states into changing undesirable actions. Examples include Beijing’s blockage of rare earth mineral shipments to Japan over the 2010 Senkaku dispute, the freezing of a China-Norway FTA negotiation along with prohibitive inspections on Norwegian Salmon in retaliation for Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize, and the quarantine of Philippine fruit imports over Scarborough Shoal.  If these tactics go unchallenged, then China will continue to use them in the future.[9] If the PRC is able to, it cannot be precluded that Beijing may one day deny access to SCS resources and Asian markets in order to secure gains from the United States. It seems that to date, a major impediment to this utilization has been America’s maintenance of a favorable balance of power throughout the SCS region. This enables the U.S. to exact an even stronger counteraction if its interests are threatened. However, if China’s ability to exact power in the South China Sea as compared to the U.S. grows to the point where America no longer “holds the ring” as Jonathan Pollack would describe it, then the U.S. and its allies will not be safe from overbearing Chinese leverage.[10]

While the above-mentioned challenges seem quite daunting, there are still steps and directions that the U.S. might take to preserve its interests. Regarding freedom of navigation, the United States should not cede any ground in its performance of ISR missions. Concessions on this issue would harm the U.S. capacity to perceive threats to itself and its regional allies, send a signal of weakness to the PRC, and indicate lack of resolve to our Asian allies and partners. Belief in the United States’ willingness to enforce internationally accepted norms is crucial for the maintenance of the U.S. alliance system in Asia. The United States recently showed its willingness to stand up for these values by violating China’s new ADIZ with two B-52 bombers and stating that any new ADIZ might result in changes to the U.S. military’s regional posture.[11] Likewise, to support adherence to international law and norms, the U.S. should continue its push for an enforceable code of conduct in the SCS between ASEAN and the PRC. Secretary of State John Kerry recently pressed Beijing and ASEAN to work hard towards such a measure. Although it is unclear whether Beijing will support a Code of Conduct that would limit its relative strengths as compared to rival claimants, it responded positively to Kerry’s approach.[12]  The U.S. should also continue to frame its position over territorial disputes as support for internationally accepted practices so that it cannot be portrayed as anti-China by Beijing.[13] It might also consider signing UNCLOS itself to significantly bolster its stance.

In respect to America’s balance of power concerns, the U.S. would do well to shore up all aspects of its Asia Rebalance in recognition that China views U.S. regional dominance as a complicating factor to many of its goals. This view is reflected widely in Chinese military documents.[14] It also seems that the United States finds itself having to react to Chinese provocations, leaving the ball in Beijing’s court. The United States might try to improve its position by altering Beijing’s strategic calculations through carefully gauged actions of its own. Specifically, it may be helpful to inject some unpredictability into Chinese assessments of possible U.S. responses to a given Chinese policy or action. As demonstrated through Yang Jiechi’s 2010 ASEAN statement, Chinese leaders seem to respect size and power as deciding factors in dispute settlement. Therefore, even while basing U.S. actions on international norms and law, it may prove beneficial for the United States to remind Beijing of one remaining fact: China may be a big fish in the SCS, but to date there is still one fish that is bigger.

By David Gitter, MA Candidate at The Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University


[1] United States of America. United States Congress. US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. China’s Maritime Disputes in the East and South China Seas. By Michael Mcdevitt and Michael Swaine. US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 4 Apr. 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2014. <>.

[2] Pedrozo, Raul, and Guanqian Peng. “Military Activities in the EEZ.” China Maritime Studies Institute, Naval War College 7 (2010): n. pag. Print.

[3] Farley, Robert. “USS Cowpens Incident: Rule Bending in the South China Sea.” The Diplomat. The Diplomat, 25 Dec. 2013. Web. 03 Mar. 2014. <>.

[4] Bader, Jeffrey A. “The U.S. and China’s 9-Dash Line: Ending the Ambiguity.” Brookings. The Brookings Institution, 6 Feb. 2014. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <>.

[5] Glaser, Bonnie. “Beijing as an Emerging Power in the South China Sea.” CSIS. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 3 Mar. 2014. <>.

[6] Landler, Mark. “Offering to Aid Talks, U.S. Challenges China on Disputed Islands.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 23 July 2010. Web. 25 Feb. 2014. <>.

[7] Pomfret, John. “U.S. Takes a Tougher Tone with China.” Washington Post. Washington Post, 30 July 2010. Web. 1 Mar. 2014. <>.

[8] Friedberg, Aaron L. “A Contest for Supremacy.” A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2011. 6-7. Print.

[9] Glaser, Bonnie. “Beijing as an Emerging Power in the South China Sea.” CSIS. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 3 Mar. 2014. <>.

[10] Jonathan Pollack reference found in: Tellis, Ashley J., and Travis Tanner. “Uphill Challenges: China’s Military Modernization and Asian Security.” China’s Military Challenge. Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2012. 14-15. Print.

[11] Shanker, Thom. “U.S. Sends Two B-52 Bombers Into Air Zone Claimed by China.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 Nov. 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2014. <>.;  Kaminishikawara, Jun. “U.S. Could Change Military Posture If China Expands Air Defense Zone.” Kyodo News. Kyodo News, 1 Feb. 2014. Web. 1 Mar. 2014. <>.

[12] Torode, Greg, and Manuel Mogato. “Kerry Ups the Ante in Struggle to Crack South China Sea Rules.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. <>.

[13] Glaser, Bonnie. “Beijing as an Emerging Power in the South China Sea.” CSIS. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 3 Mar. 2014. <>.

[14] See China’s 2013 military white paper for an example (renamed The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces): People’s Republic of China. Information Office of the State Council. Xinhua. Xinhua News Agency, Apr. 2013. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. <>.