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China's Expansion into the South China Sea with Michael Auslin


Published October 27, 2022

Since 2013, China has been creating artificial islands in the South China Sea and turning them into military bases. It is attempting to solidify its claims to the strategically vital waters of the South China Sea inside the so-called nine-dash line. China’s actions have been met with little international resistance, endangering an important trade route that sees $5 trillion worth of goods flow through it each year. America needs to make a clear and credible commitment to reject China’s expansion in the South China Sea.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why doesn’t the international community stop China’s expansion?
  2. How would the international community and China respond to America’s defending the South China Sea by rejecting China’s expansion? Why?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “The Covert Art of China’s Military Activity in the East China Sea,” by Michael Auslin. Available here.
  • Listen to “Asia Anxieties—Trump, Xi, Kim, and the Fate of the Indo-Pacific,” by Michael Auslin, available here.
  • Read “In the South China Sea and Elsewhere, East Asia Stumbles Toward Conflict,” by Michael Auslin, available here.
    View Transcript

    Since 2013, China has been creating artificial islands in the South China Sea and turning them into military bases.

    It is attempting to solidify its claims to the strategically vital waters of the South China Sea inside the so-called called “Nine Dash Line”.  It is doing this for economic, military, and domestic political reasons.

    The vast majority of China, Japan, and South Korea’s natural resources are delivered through the South China Sea, making it perhaps the world’s most critically important waterway. 

    And by laying claim to islands in the region and building bases from which to project military power, China is making progress toward its goal of becoming the dominant military power in the region.

    To some, what China does in far-off Southeast Asia doesn’t have anything to do with us.

    But China’s behavior should concern us for several reasons.

    The integrated waters of the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea, and the East China Sea and South China Sea, are as vital to the history, identity, and trade of eastern Asia as the Mediterranean is to Europe.  Through its waters pass $5 trillion worth of goods every year.

    China’s claims and island building campaign flouts international law, and Beijing ignored The Hague’s international court of arbitration when it ruled against China in 2016.

    China’s actions also demonstrate that Beijing is not the reliable partner it has claimed to be. In 2015, President Xi Jinping nominally pledged that the islands they were building would be for civilian purposes. Instead, they have been weaponized, flatly contradicting China’s claim of a “peaceful rise.” 

    Further, by militarizing the islands, Beijing is increasing the chances of regional military conflict, since other nations like the Philippines, Brunei, and Taiwan claim some or all of the islands and waters claimed by China. These militarized islands make it easier for China to intimidate its neighbors in the region.

    In short, China’s expansion into the South China Sea threatens international law and regional stability, potentially holds the global economy at risk, and challenges the long-standing principle of the freedom of navigation that the United States has underwritten since the end of World War II.

    Unfortunately, when we figured out the extent of their operations, our response was to do very little. We put no pressure on China to halt their development.

    So, what can the United States do about it now?

    America needs to recover its appreciation of the strategic importance of Asia’s inner seas and rimlands if it is to come up with a realistic strategy to preserve both its power and its influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

    American power must be commensurate with the commitments it has made. Losing one part of the Asiatic Mediterranean will certainly cause allies and partners in other parts to consider either severing ties with the United States or declaring neutrality, so as to preserve their own freedom of action. 

    A hard-earned lesson we learned in the aftermath of World War II was that putting even just a little bit of pressure early on could have changed the calculations of our antagonists, and prevented further warfare.

    Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine should remind us that wars between states are still possible.

    The better course of action is to keep the Asiatic Mediterranean whole, balanced, and stable. Only then can America be certain that the vital rimlands of Asia will remain free from conflict.  

    This means working even more closely with allies and partners, strengthening the Quad and AUKUS initiatives, and ensuring that the US military maintains a credible force that can respond to any attempts by China to close critical sea lanes or coerce American allies.

    A clear and credible commitment by the United States to reject China’s expansion in the South China Sea will pay dividends in peace later on.