Do No Harm: Evaluating Proposals for US Intervention in the South China Sea

The South China Sea has long been a focal point in US-China relations. Home to large fishing grounds and abundant oil reserves, the sea provides most food and energy to its 620 million inhabitants and serves as a waterway for 1/3rd of global maritime trade, $1.2 trillion of which travels either to or from the US. But all is not well in paradise. Six governments currently contest sovereignty over the sea’s islands and resources, including China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Although no single government has ever dominated the region, China has employed increasingly aggressive tactics to assert control over the waterway, delineating a supposed ‘nine-dash’ line within which it proclaims ‘undisputed sovereignty.’ Since 2014, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has reclaimed 3,000 acres of land, constructed military facilities on artificial islands, harassed foreign ships in nearby waters, and blockaded reefs in foreign exclusive economic zones. In response, Southeast Asian nations have turned to the United States as their most powerful military and economic ally to help deter Chinese maritime advance and reclaim disputed land. Although the US remains officially neutral, whichever policy it chooses to adopt in the coming years will surely define its relationship with both China and its Southeast Asian neighbours, thereby shaping the regional – and possibly, global – balance of power.


In July’s publication of Foreign Affairs, former US-policy advisor Mr. Ely Ratner argues that Chinese regional hegemony would represent a ‘devastating blow’ to the United States, whose current policies he condemns as risk-averse and ineffective. According to Mr. Ratner, deterrence has failed principally because American leadership never explicitly stated how it would respond to further Chinese transgressions in the South China Sea. Likewise, international organisations such as the UN, the G-7, the EU, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have never instated concrete sanctions to enforce their condemnation of Chinese expansion, thereby undermining their influence over Beijing’s maritime policy. President Trump’s recent pledge to increase military expenditure in the South China Sea is equally vain: Chinese leadership may be intimidated by America’s military might, but it also knows that the US does not value the South China Sea enough to enter a costly and difficult confrontation over it, especially given Mr. Trump’s regular assertions that he champions ‘America First.’ No matter how many US warships are deployed in the sea, China will not change its policy so long as US statesmen don’t concretise theirs.

Mr. Ratner proposes a series of measures which would function as strategic deterrence against China’s maritime advance. First, the United States should issue a clear warning that if China continues the construction of artificial islands and military bases, the US will forgo its position of neutrality and declare its opposition to ‘Chinese coercion.’ It should then cooperate with the region’s nations to ‘reclaim land’ and ‘fortify bases’ within their exclusive economic zones. Second, Mr. Ratner proposes that the United States conduct joint military exercises à la NATO, as well as sell ‘counter-intervention capabilities’ to their partner countries. If Chinese militarisation continues despite these measures, Mr. Ratner advices the US to negotiate deals which permanently station US troops at local military bases. Such negotiations would be paired with strong economic support to the region, in case China responds with economic sanctions. Finally, Mr. Ratner encourages the United States to complement these measures by supplying intelligence on Chinese manoeuvres and military developments to Southeast Asian news outlets, thereby engaging the public and placing more pressure upon China’s leadership to halt maritime expansion.

However, Mr. Ratner’s proposals are both unrealistic and disproportionately aggressive. Considering that China is already wary of American presence in the region, these proposals would increase hostilities and the risk of escalation between China and the US. Furthermore, Mr. Ratner fails to account for mitigating circumstances, such as North Korea’s nuclear program, which require the United States to compromise with China on other issues of relatively lesser importance. Finally, Mr. Ratner overestimates the risk Chinese regional hegemony poses to the US’s economic and political power, making his proposals inappropriate and reckless. In order to maintain regional stability and reassure its allies, the United States should employ much tamer policies which enforce freedom of navigation in the South China Sea without overtly provoking or alarming Chinese leadership.


First, Mr. Ratner’s policy proposals are somewhat idealistic. For instance, he defends the need for American assertiveness with reference to the Obama administration’s threat of economic sanctions in 2015, which succeeded in stemming China’s state-sponsored theft of U.S secrets. However, Mr. Ratner does not acknowledge that Beijing is virulently opposed to letting the United States tilt the regional balance of power in favour of Western allies. Besides, Mr. Trump’s penchant for brash rhetoric suggests that any ‘warning’ about shedding neutrality and opposing China would likely be dismissed as hollow showmanship. Furthermore, the US cannot afford to provoke the PRC over the South China Sea given the current imperative to collaborate in response to North Korea’s nuclear threats. The ongoing crisis means the United States will inevitably have to compromise with respect to this – and other issues – in order to encourage China’s cooperation.

Mr. Ratner’s proposals also have high risk of backfiring, causing needless hostilities between the US and China. At the moment, three scenarios circulate regarding the latter’s future. Some suspect that the PRC aims to surpass the United States economically and politically, becoming the new global hegemon in the next 100 years. Alternatively, it could remain a mere regional hegemon, albeit one with significant global influence. More likely, China will become increasingly powerful in global governance and will share this power with the United States. In step with these predictions, US-China relations are often characterised with reference to the ‘Thucydides trap,’ the ancient Greek historian’s observation that rising powers often engender fear and insecurity in neighbouring hegemonies. Thucydides contended that this insecurity always increases hostilities, distrust, and the risk of misunderstandings, making confrontation inevitable. Although the notion of ‘inevitable’ conflict is exaggerated, international power imbalances certainly create fertile ground for conflict, where diplomatic miscalculations can rapidly exacerbate existing tensions. In the case of China and the US, Thucydidean risks are compounded by their civilizational differences. The two states have radically different conceptions of good regional governance, with China adopting more of an authoritarian approach, and the US favouring an international rule of law. These competing visions increase the risk of misperceptions within both governments regarding activities in the South China Sea. Indeed, political scientist Graham Allison warns that American policymakers have yet to improve their understanding of Chinese leadership’s attitude toward military force, which is intensely pragmatic and largely unconcerned with international norms. Therefore, placing US troops on local bases and conducting joint military exercises would probably alarm Chinese leadership and motivate further militarisation rather than deter it.

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides also recounts how Athens’ intervention in a dispute between Corinth and Corcyra sparked a series of clumsy diplomatic manoeuvres which the Spartan alliance interpreted as aggressive and tyrannical, thereby serving as a pretext for Sparta’s involvement. What was originally a relatively minor conflict escalated into a dramatic confrontation between the two greater powers of the ancient Greek world. The US should heed this precedent and take care to evaluate whether Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea presents enough of a security threat to warrant hostile policies which increase the risk of escalation and, as in ancient Peloponnese, lead to confrontation. If the United States’ priority is to avoid confrontation – as opposed to contest Southeast Asian hegemony – it may be best to eschew Mr. Ratner’s proposals and opt instead for strategic reassurance, whereby states decrease mistrust and the likelihood of confrontation by establishing joint political and economic commitments. As of yet, this seems to have been the preferred strategy for both the US and China, exemplified, for instance, by the latter’s efforts in devising an EU-China Investment Agreement. Strategic reassurance is also enforced by the two nations’ important economic co-dependency: the US is China’s top trading partner, whilst Beijing is the biggest purchaser of US government debt. Ultimately, this suggests that Chinese regional hegemony is not as much of a threat to the US as Mr. Ratner claims.

Nevertheless, American allies such as Japan and Vietnam are unnerved at the thought of leaving China in control of the waterway, which some statesmen believe could compromise their traders’ freedom of navigation. For instance, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have bolstered their ‘area-denial capabilities,’ which aim to prevent other states from navigating or occupying vast stretches of the South China Sea. In order to reassure these allies, the United States should adhere to the aforementioned strategic reassurance as well as enforce its ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols in the region, which help defend exclusive economic zones without provoking Chinese leadership.

Ultimately, Mr. Ratner’s proposals for US economic and political intervention in the South China Sea are excessively agressive, increasing hostilities between two nations which instead need to prioritise cooperation in other, more pressing issues of military and economic importance. The United States would do better to pursue a middle ground, whereby it continues strategic reassurance whilst also conducting legally authorised naval patrols which reassure its allies and mitigate China’s assertiveness.

Elina Solomon is editor for the King’s Think Tank’s Defence and Diplomacy Policy Centre.


[1] Firestein, David J. “The US-China Perception Gap in the South China Sea.” The Diplomat. August 19, 2016. Accessed October 01, 2017 from

[2] Graham, Allison. “Managing the Next Clash of Civilisations.” Foreign Affairs 96(5) (Sept/Oct 2017): 80-89

[3] Ratner, Ely. “How to Stop China’s Maritime Advance.Foreign Affairs 96(4) (July/Aug 2017): 64-72

[4] Scobell, Andrew. “China Engages the World, Warily: A Book Review.” Political Science Quarterly. 132(2) (July/Aug 2017): 341-345

[5] Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1954.


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