Swimming with the Dragon and the Eagle: The South China Sea and Sino-American Relations

Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang (2nd L), Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi (1st L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd R) and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew at a joint press conference after the 7th China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue I Image: Yin Bogu Xinhua News Agency/Newscom

The South China Sea encompasses the geographic area from the Malacca Straits to the strait of Taiwan. As a site historically bordered by seafaring nations, the South China sea has been the crossroad of much historical interaction. Beginning in the 19th century, the Chinese and Vietnamese have practiced exploration and partial habitation of islands in the sea. In the 20th and 21st century, as Asia continued on the path of economic growth, the sea has represented a key region for the movement of goods and resources to and from East Asia. Currently, the sea contains key shipping routes responsible for transporting nearly one-third of the world’s liquefied natural gas.[i] In addition, a recent surveying of the region has displayed possibility for large oil and gas deposits. As a result of this discovery, the South China Sea has become a modern focal point of territorial dispute, illustrating the immense balance of power within East Asia in the post-Cold War era.

One key player in this dispute is China. Since the 1970s, China has increasingly re-asserted its claim to a large swath of the area through the historical nine-dash line. As a demarcation line created in the aftermath of the Second World War, it lays claim to several reefs, atolls, and islands that are contested by other nations such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines.[ii] Since the 1970s, the increasing projection capabilities of the Chinese military have highlighted the region and contributed to the possibility of military clash with the aforementioned nations. In 2009, China`s submission to the United Nations of a map utilizing the nine-dash line marked the clear commencement of the current conflict over the South China Sea.[iii] Citing this, other states have consistently criticized China’s position, many claiming that the nine-dash line violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This criticism was supported by a ruling from the Court of Permanent Arbitration. The verdict stated that China’s nine-dash line was not backed by any substantive historic right, and that the islands as claimed by China were not entitled to a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. In response, China has deployed increasing numbers of military personnel to the area, including the development of an artificial air strip and military base in Fiery Cross Reef.[iv] China has also embarked on a campaign of “bilateral negotiations”[v] with other nations directly, seeking to regionalize the issue rather than becoming the subject of criticism and policing on an international scale.

The other key player in this dispute has been the United States (US). As an important Western representative contrasting Chinese influence in Asia, the US has long acted as a foil towards Chinese territorial expansion, with the case of the South China Sea being no exception. US involvement in the South China Sea began as a military issue. Since as early as 2001, the Quadrennial Defence Review Report described China’s development of “anti-access and area denial” capabilities [vi] as a clear example of Chinese attempts to establish a long-range defensive perimeter along China’s east coast and into the South China Sea. Although the issue was largely put to rest due to the Bush presidency`s focus on the Middle East, it re-emerged as a concern under the Obama presidency. Chinese actions in the South China Sea contributed to a “Pivot to Asia” period in US foreign policy. In 2010, the US formally acknowledged Chinese expansion at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum, sharply rebuking Chinese activity in the area. The US emphasized the need to maintain “freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law.”[vii] By 2011, the Obama Presidency had increased military funding to the Asia Pacific Region, emulating a “forward strategy”. [viii] Evidence of this was seen in 2014 and 2015 when US military vessels approached the Chinese islands in close proximity, and stated that such “routine operations in the South China Sea…[would continue] to operate on a regular basis”.[ix]

Consequently, the conflict has transformed Sino-American relations in the context of Asia. The increase in American military presence is a response to Chinese military capabilities, as demonstrated by China’s growing power and effective deterrence in the area. Although the US is unable to deter further Chinese expansion due to its late arrival and lack of clear economic domination in the region, both the US and China have turned toward maintaining their current positions: revitalizing local partnerships and alliances.

One illustrative case study is that of the Philippines and the recent comments made by President Duterte. In 2014, the US signed a formal agreement with the Philippines for the re-establishment of a rotating presence of US forces in the nation, the first since 1992.[i] However, since then, the new President-elect, Rodrigo Duterte, has repeatedly made comments on the disposability of US-Filipino defence relations. Duterte has even gone as far as to explicitly state that he could go to China or Russia for the same arms.[ii] Although perhaps an isolated instance of  angry outburst resulting from the US’ refusal to sell weapons to the Philippines, Duterte’s comments illustrate the emerging possibility of improving ties with China. China’s economic involvement and regional proximity greatly outweigh the equivalent US involvement, creating a serious incentive for the Philippines to do business with China.  China’s highly regionalized focus on defining the dispute as requiring “bilateral negotiation” also increasingly distances the US from being essential in deciding the outcome of the dispute.

Although Duterte’s comments demonstrate the growing clout and influence of China within the region, Duterte’s actions and general sense of rapprochement with China is in turn heavily limited by the military resources and power provided by the United States. This has become increasingly clear in Duterte’s most recent actions, which established greater connections with China through a closer foreign policy while maintaining indirect contact with the US through discussions regarding the continuation of a “strategic partnership” with Japan, a closely US allied state.[iii] Although the US has so far demonstrated its inability to counteract China’s expansion in the South China Sea, its continued presence can be regarded as a primary factor preventing China from further development. The US continues to present a large obstacle that constrains China’s ability to expand formal de-facto control beyond its current area. For China, an affront towards American equipment and personnel represents a far greater diplomatic and military liability than its aggression towards regional neighbours such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Consequently, Duterte’s actions point increasingly to a future where nations must balance Sino-American relations, utilizing their relations with both nations to gain the most benefit. In response to China’s growing power and economic influence, states such as the Philippines will be either forced or enticed to negotiate directly with China. However, without the financial power to develop any substantive and independent military capability, nations will have to continue to maintain relations with the US to fund a contrasting military presence if they wish to deter any further Chinese aggression.

The content of this article does not represent the positions, research methods, or opinions of the Synergy Editorial Committee. We are solely responsible for reviewing and editing submissions. Please address all scholarly concerns directly to the contributor(s) of the article.


Timothy Law is a 4th Year student studying International Relations and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies at the University of Toronto, Victoria College. Currently, Timothy serves as an event correspondent and editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies.

[i] Meijer, Hugo, ed. Origins and Evolution of the US Rebalance toward Asia: Diplomatic, Military, and Economic Dimensions. 1st ed. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 45

[ii] Krishnamoorthy, Nadini. “Duterte Snubs US Again, Says He Would Rather Go to Russia and China for Purchasing Arms.” International Business Times RSS. International Business Times RSS, 05 Oct. 2016. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.

[iii] Reynolds, Isabel. “After Declaring Pivot to China, Duterte Visits U.S. Ally Abe.” Bloomberg. Bloomberg, 24 Oct. 2016. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.

[i] “18 Maps That Explain Maritime Security in Asia | Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Center for Strategic & International Studies, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.

[ii] “Why Is the South China Sea Contentious?” BBC News. British Broadcasting Company, 12 July 2016. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.

[iii] Beech, Hannah. “Just Where Exactly Did China Get Its Nine-Dash Line From?” Time. Time Magazine, 19 July 2016. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.

[iv] Evident photo evidence and time lapse of development is available at the following link: https://amti.csis.org/fiery-cross-reef/

“Fiery Cross Reef Tracker | Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Center for Strategic & International Studies, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.

[v] Welch, David A. “China’s Curious South China Sea Negotiation Policy.” The Diplomat. The Diplomat, 24 June 2016. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.

[vi] Meijer, Hugo, ed. Origins and Evolution of the US Rebalance toward Asia: Diplomatic, Military, and Economic Dimensions. 1st ed. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 41.

[vii] Landler, Mark. “Offering to Aid Talks, U.S. Challenges China on Disputed Islands.” The New York Times. 23 July 2010, Asia Pacific sec. Print.

[viii] Green, Michael J. “Rethinking U.S. Military Presence in Asia and the Pacific.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. April 13, 2012. Accessed October 29, 2015. http://csis.org/files/publication/120413_gf_green.pdf.

[ix] Ali, Idrees, and Matt Spetalnick. “U.S. Warship Challenges China’s Claims in South China Sea.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 21 Oct. 2016. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.

Timothy Law
About Timothy Law 6 Articles
Timothy Law is a 3rd Year student studying International Relations and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies at the University of Toronto, Victoria College. Currently, Timothy serves as an event correspondent and editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies, East Asia section. Specializing in the East Asian region, Timothy has interest in historical and political developments of the 21st century, especially within China and the greater Chinese community.

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