Cortez Cooper of RAND Corporation (left) and Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic Studies discussed the geopolitics of the South China Sea on February 21, 2018 at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library (Nixon Foundation)


The U.S., China, and the Geopolitics of the South China Sea
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
February 21, 2018

Transcript • Video

Overview and Objectives

This report is based on the views expressed during a workshop on February 21, 2018 organized by the Richard Nixon Foundation as part of its mission to create or contribute to actionable information for use by policy makers across the globe.

Offered as a means to support ongoing discussion, the report does not constitute an analytical document, nor does it represent any formal position of the organizations involved.


Cortez A. Cooper III is a senior international/defense researcher at the RAND Corporation and a member of the Pardee RAND Graduate School faculty. At RAND he provides assessments of security challenges across political, military, economic, cultural, and informational arenas for a broad range of U.S. government clients. He has served in the U.S. Navy Executive Service as the senior analyst for the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific, U.S. Pacific Command. As the senior intelligence analyst and Asia regional specialist in the Pacific Theater, he advised Pacific Command leadership on trends and developments in the Command’s area of responsibility. His 20 years of military service included assignments as both an Army Signal Corps Officer and a China Foreign Area Officer. In addition to numerous military decorations, the Secretary of Defense awarded Cooper with the Exceptional Civilian Service Award in 2001.

Gregory B. Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He oversees research on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific, with a particular focus on the maritime domain and the countries of Southeast Asia. His research interests include the South China Sea disputes, democratization in Southeast Asia, and Asian multilateralism. He is the author of “The South China Sea in Focus: Clarifying the Limits of Maritime Dispute” (CSIS, July 2013) and coauthor of multiple works including “Building a More Robust U.S.-Philippines Alliance” (CSIS, August 2015), “A New Era in U.S.-Vietnam Relations: Deepening Ties Two Decades after Normalization” (CSIS, June 2014), and “A U.S.-Indonesia Partnership for 2020: Recommendations for Forging a 21st Century Relationship” (CSIS, September 2013).

Dr. Wenshan Jia (moderator) is professor of Communication Studies at Chapman University. He specializes in Communication Theory and Methods with emphasis on Intercultural/Global Communication, more specifically on communication between East Asia and the West. He held the Wang-Fradkin Professorship for 2005-2007, which is the highest award given by Chapman University for faculty research. He is the recipient of The Early Career Award from The International Academy for Intercultural Research, as well as several other awards for his scholarly publications. Jia has been acknowledged by student clubs at Chapman University for his contribution to global education and his impact on student academic experience. He often acts both as a professional reviewer as well as an expert on related media both at home and abroad.

Issues Discussed

The South China Sea is among the world’s epicenters of geopolitical competition. 30 percent of all global trade passes through the waterway each year. China and its East Asian neighbors, including Indonesia, Japan, The Philippines, and Vietnam all have territorial claims, and established maritime defenses. Meanwhile in its pivot to Asia, the United States has been conducting freedom of navigation tours of its vessels in waters claimed by China.

How can the U.S and China reduce the risk of conflict, and work on a peaceful and equitable resolution in this pivotal international waterway?

Key Definitions of Importance and Historical Context

The geopolitics of the South China Sea is a central issue in U.S.-China Relations. The South China sea is approximately 1.4 square miles in the Pacific Ocean, and borders the shores of Singapore and the Malacca Straight to the Straight of Taiwan. It spans west of the Philippines, north of Indonesia, and east of Vietnam.

It’s also the home of hundreds of Islands, which are the cause of dispute. These historically uninhabited islands — mainly composed of rock and reef — include the Paracel Islands in the North, the Spratly Islands in the South, and the Scarborough Shoal in the East.

Under the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law and the Sea, each country is able to claim 200 miles of water from their coastlines as an Exclusive Economic Zone. China’s territorial Sea claim spans 1,000 miles of water, which they outline with a Nine-Dash Line on government issued maps, and justify from a historical basis.

All islands in the South China Sea had been occupied by Japan during World War II. Immediately after the war, France had reoccupied the Paracel Islands. When France left Indochina, the Republic of Vietnam maintained Garrisons on the western half of the islands. The Republic of China — led by nationalist forces — occupied the eastern half. By 1975, after the Fall of Saigon, People’s Republic of China forces attained control over all the islands. The P.R.C. has maintained well established control over them ever since.

The Spratly Islands have been hotly contested. China occupies seven of them — the most recent beginning in 1995 is Mischief Reef. The Philippines control eight islands, and Malaysia has five. Vietnam has 49 outposts spread across 27 different reefs. Mischief has effectively been converted into a fully operational military base by China. It’s been worrying to the Philippines as it’s 20 miles from a Group of Filipino Marines stationed at Second Thomas Shoal. The Scarborough Shoal was uncontested Philippine territory until 2012 when China seized control. The Philippines are a key actor in the South China Sea. Since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, Manila has forged closer ties with Beijing.

There is no legal mechanism to resolve these territorial disputes.

$3 billion in trade passes through the South China Sea annually, making it one of the most economically important waterways in the world.

It has an estimated 900 cubic feet of natural gas, and reserves of 7 billion in oil.

Its fisheries employ more than 3.5 million people, and many more millions are employed by related industries.

Starting in 2013, China began construction of reefs into seven artificial islands in the Spratly Islands. The largest of these are Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef.

Mischief Reef is equipped with a 3,000 meter run way, 24 fighter jet hangars, five bomber hangars, and refueling tankers.

Fiery Cross Reef is likely an intelligence collection hub. It includes ray domes, radar facilities, mobile missile shelters, and underground storage for ammunition, fuel, and water.

Subi Reef, the biggest of the three is just 12 miles from the Philippines’ Thitu Island. It’s the size of Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii. Subi has 24 combat aircraft and four larger hangars. It also has a high-frequency “elephant cage” radar array on its southern end.

China’s strategy is to stay below the conflict threshold and use their Coast Guard, maritime militia, and civilian craft, to gradually increase their presence int the South China Sea.

In 2011, the President Barack Obama announced a U.S. “pivot” or strategic shift to Asia, based on regional alliances, engagement with Asia-Pacific multilateral organizations, and strengthening of commercial ties. Furthermore, 2,500 U.S. Marines were deployed to Australia.

  • The U.S. national defense strategy is headed toward competition with the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea.
  • The South China Sea is a test case for China’s global leadership role, and how they are going to behave in the future.
  • The backdrop of the activity in the South China Sea is based on a larger strategic mistrust.
  • There’s isn’t a lot the U.S. can do about the South China at the present moment.
  • The U.S. can’t assume that all of China’s actions in the South China Sea are negative.
  • The U.S. has to convince China that the risk of its negative activities — like Island building — aren’t worth the cost.
  • Standing up to China in strategic areas can lead to beneficial outcomes.
  • The majority of South East Asia has a “schizophrenic” mentality. On the one hand, they’re concerned about China’s activity, but they also rely on China’s economic clout.
  • China wants the U.S. out of the South China Sea but does not want conflict.
  • There is a growing acceptance that China can become more assertive in some activities in the South China Sea.
  • The Nine-Dash line is counterproductive for China itself, especially because of its trade relationships with other countries in the region.
  • The South China Sea isn’t necessarily a territorial dispute that the U.S. and China are embroiled in. The territory is not of U.S. interest, and never will be.
  • The U.S. has three important interests: 1) the ability of the U.S. military to operate — specifically to sail in and fly over the South China Sea; 2) the defense of U.S. allies 3) and most important U.S. credibility, particularly if China challenges international laws —forged with the help U.S. global leadership — such as the U.N. Convention on the Law and the Sea (U.N. C.L.O.S.
  • U.N.C.L.O.S. does not deal in sovereignty issues. China’s behavior in the South China Sea is based on sovereignty claims.
  • Beijing is claiming historic rights that are found nowhere in international Law or the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and are ostensibly baseless.
  • China’s definition of the Nine-Dash Line has been kept vague and has changed over the decades, so that it can claim anything it wants and explain it after the fact.
  • Territorial disputes are notoriously tough to resolve. The way territorial disputes traditionally get resolved is through military conquest or direct negotiation.
  • Parties in the South China Sea can occupy reefs for a long time and keep staring at each other, and it’s not going to make a difference.
  • Beijing paints the dispute over the South China Sea as one that non regional actors are meddling in.
  • The issue of economics of the South China Sea is a red herring. The total figure of global trade coming from the South China Sea – $5.3 billion – is inflated. Furthermore the Chinese aren’t going to cut off trade in the South China Sea. They rely on trade just as anybody else.
  • What does matter are the resources in the South China Sea. For example 3.5 million Asians are reliant on fish or employed in the fishing industry. The region is 10 years away from a catastrophic fisheries collapse from over fishing, which will have devastating economic impacts.
  • The South China Sea is not an industrial hub of China except that it brings materials into China, which means that China is not going to threaten peace in the region.
  • The U.S. is clearly the dominant military power in the region, but has a limited ordinance in dealing with a rising military power like China.
  • China has Asia’s largest navy which is becoming more capable by the day.
  • The so called “Thucydides Trap” as it pertains to the South China Sea misunderstands U.S. interests. China is scared to death of a minor incident at sea resulting in military conflict.
  • The U.S. needs to do a better job communicating its interests clearly in the South China Sea.
  • The U.S. needs to see the bigger picture in Asia rather than concentrating disproportionately on the North Korea nuclear issue.
  • The U.S. needs to shore up its alliance with the Philippines. If the U.S. loses the Philippines, it loses the South China Sea. The U.S. needs a public issue of clarification that our Mutual Defense Treaty does apply to the South China Sea.

Xu, Beina. “Backgrounder: South China Sea Tensions.” Council on Foreign Relations. 14 May 2014. 2 April 2018

“Updated: China’s Big Three Near Completion.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. 29 June 2017. 3 April 2017.

“Australia and the American ‘Pivot to Asia.’” Australian Centre on China in the World.