Chinese Aggression and American Responses

On March 1st, the aircraft carrier USS John C Stennis and its strike group passed through the Luzon Strait separating Taiwan from the Philippines and entered the South China Sea (SCS).[1] Tensions in the region have grown to the point that US Pacific Command felt the presence of a carrier group necessary to monitor escalating shows of force between China and its neighbors. Before all is said and done, far more than the Stennis carrier group may be required to reestablish peace in the SCS. Chinese aggression in the SCS worries its neighbors, Beijing interprets American responses as “imperialism,” and a disturbing new campaign of island-building challenges traditional concepts of territorial sovereignty. The United States will need to respond deftly to challenges from China and our own allies in order to restore tranquility in the SCS.

Chinese claims to the SCS go back hundreds of years, according to the Chinese. The historical record shows no effective control of the area by the Chinese since Europeans arrived in East Asia.[2] The weak Qing Dynasty could not protect itself from European imperialists, and the SCS was effectively colonized by France (claiming Vietnam and the western portion)  Spain (claiming the Philippines and the eastern portion). Spain eventually ceded its portion to the United States. Immediately following World War II and the Chinese Civil War, foreign presence largely withdrew and no East Asian country firmly asserted control over the SCS.[3] The independence of the Philippines in 1947, the Vietnam War, and a renewed China changed everything.

In 1974, South Vietnamese forces and Chinese forces squared off over the Paracel Islands in the SCS, formerly part of French Indochina. After the French withdrew, both Vietnam and China had claimed these islands. In the absence of large populations (the Paracels are almost entirely uninhabited), territorial claims relied on the presence of temporary military installations and fishing vessels. When South Vietnamese ships spotted Chinese ships and soldiers in the Paracels, they confronted the threat. The Chinese fired on the Vietnamese and a minor battle ensued. The victorious Chinese won control of the Paracels .[4] The subsequent fall of South Vietnam and the relative weakness of the Philippines meant that the “Battle of the Paracel Islands” gave China de facto control over large portions of the SCS. Since then, China has built and maintained a military base in the Paracels and continues to rebuff advances into its “territory.”[5]

China continues to harass civilian ships that it views as passing through its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), including much of the SCS, without permission.[6] It harries US planes passing through international airspace over which China claims control.[7] And its navy constantly interferes with US naval operations in the SCS, such as when a Chinese submarine collided with the towed sonar array of a US destroyer in 2009.[8] These and other incidents of Chinese aggression concern the United States and alarm US allies in the region. Of particular concern is the Chinese practice of island building in the SCS.

Beijing has ordered the construction of dozens of artificial islands in the SCS.[9] This move has deep ramifications for territorial claims in the SCS. If found to be legitimate, these islands would give China a viable claim over large portions of sea surrounding them, as well as the right to freely access these islands whenever they please, cutting across international shipping lanes and approaching the borders of the Philippines and Vietnam. Perhaps the most aggressive step yet, this island-building campaign must be addressed by the United States if a settlement to the SCS question will be reached.

The United States has a turbulent history in the region, to say the least. After colonizing the Philippines and fighting on the side of French colonialists in the Vietnam War, many countries in the region view us with natural suspicion. China, particularly, sees the United States as the heir to the Western imperialism that inflicted a “century of humiliation” upon them from 1839 – 1949.[10] While China’s actions in the SCS are aggressive and problematic for peace in the region, overbearing responses from Washington could inflame tensions and cause the situation to degrade into conflict. The United States must craft careful responses to these issues in order to avoid spiraling tensions with a major, and rising, world power.[11]

First, Washington should continue the policies of economic engagement that have changed the Sino-American dynamic from open hostility to cautious cooperation. Since the Nixonian détente between the two nations, trade and mutual economic gain have sustained an occasionally troubled relationship. These policies should be continued and expanded upon, while also strengthening trade relationships with American allies in the region. The United States must show China the benefits of staying on friendly terms with the West, while also shoring up the economies of our allies, in case conflict does emerge and Chinese trade diminishes. Agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) insure against those potential economic harms.[12]

Second, the United States should provide enhanced security guarantees to our allies without provoking Beijing. In order to avoid falling into the  security dilemma,[13] these guarantees must take the form of defensive capabilities. Anti-air and anti-ship missiles provide the Philippines with defensive capabilities, but little to no offensive ones. Vietnam may soon agree to host a US military base on its own soil, a momentous event in itself, but particularly difficult to manage in light of a sensitive China to the north. If this base becomes a reality, Washington should take care to keep deployments small and offensive capabilities low. Our intention should be to signal our dedication to regional security, not to frighten China with the threat of invasion.[14]

The US-China relationship will, for better or for worse, define much of the twenty-first century. A careful response to Chinese aggression in the SCS could set both countries on a path to constructive partnership in the coming decades. A blunder could send us into conflict. With the world’s most capable military, we always carry a big stick. Let us now tread softly.


[1] South Front, “Militarization and US-China Confrontation in the South China Sea,” Global Research, Mar 17, 2016,

[2] Security Flashpoints: Oil, Islands, Sea Access and Military Confrontation, seminar transcripts compiled, eds. Myron H Nordquist and John Norton Moore (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1998).

[3] Japan, which had occupied the islands during WWII, formally ceded control, but the San Francisco Treaty did not name a beneficiary to receive control of the islands.

Treaty of Peace with Japan, Article 2 Section (f), US-UK-Japan-Australia-New Zealand-France-Pakistan-Canada-Ceylon-Mexico-Argentina, Sep 18, 1951, 3 UST 3169.

[4] Ngo Minh Tri and Koh Swee Lean Collin, “Lessons from the Battle of the Paracel Islands,” The Diplomat, Jan 23, 2014,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jeff M Smith and Joshua Eisenman, “China and America Clash on the High Seas: the EEZ Challenge,” The National Interest, May 22, 2014,

[7] Alberto Riva, “Here is the Chinese Fighter Jet that Harassed a US Surveillance Plane,” International Business Times, Aug 22, 2014,

[8] South Front, “Militarization and US-China Confrontation,” Global Research.

[9] Derek Watkins, “What China Has Been Building in the South China Sea,” The New York Times, Oct 27, 2015,

[10] Matt Schiavenza, “How Humiliation Drove Modern Chinese History,” The Atlantic, Oct 25, 2013,

[11] Dylan Kolhoff, “A Soft Pivot to Asia,” The Project on International Peace & Security, Brief No. 6.5,

[12] Kolhoff, “A Soft Pivot.”

[13] The security dilemma refers to the situation in which Country A perceives the defensive actions of Country B to be aggressive. Country A naturally responds with defensive measures of its own, causing Country B to perceive a threat. Mutual suspicion and clouded judgment cause two defensively-oriented nations to spiral into conflict.

[14] Kolhoff, “A Soft Pivot.”


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