Brinkmanship in South China Sea Highlights Larger Struggle for Military Primacy


The United States and the United Kingdom conducted joint naval exercises in the South China Sea last week, their first such drills in the area since 2010. The operations were intended to push back on China’s assertive behavior in the region, including its militarization of nearby artificial islands, but analysts are skeptical that they will have much of an impact.

The U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer USS McCampbell and the Royal Navy frigate HMS Argyll practiced division tactics and conducted communication drills as well as a personnel exchange during the five-day exercise. In a press release, the U.S. Navy said the drills were meant “to address common security priorities.” Last August, the Royal Navy warship HMS Albion sailed near the Paracel Islands—territory occupied by China but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam—in a freedom of navigation exercise, prompting an angry response from Beijing. The U.S. Navy routinely conducts freedom of navigation operations in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

U.S.-British joint operations in the South China Sea are rare, but Washington has held exercises with Japan and other regional allies in recent months. The White House has sought more international participation to counter Beijing’s growing control over the strategic waterway, a rare call for multilateralism from an American administration that has repeatedly opted to go it alone on the world stage.

Last week’s drills were “an attempt to show that the South China Sea issue is not just a bilateral contest between America and China, but a wider issue which engages the key interests of all countries that support and benefit from the U.S.-led order in Asia, and by extension globally, which China is challenging by its assertive conduct,” says Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, in an email.

However, White believes that British involvement in the maneuvers was mostly just for show, as the U.K. “lacks the resources to lend any serious weight to America’s efforts to contain China’s growing influence.” Britain “probably isn’t willing” to risk its relationship with China by supporting the U.S. in direct confrontations against Beijing, White adds.

Tensions in the region have risen in recent months. Last September, a Chinese destroyer approached the USS Decatur as it conducted a freedom of navigation exercise in the Spratly Islands, where Beijing claims seven man-made islands. The Chinese warship warned the Decatur to leave the area before moving ahead of it and cutting across its bow, coming within 45 yards. Chinese vessels have approached U.S. Navy ships during previous freedom of navigation operations, but last September’s encounter was the closest and most dangerous yet.

White contends that the “real dispute” in the South China Sea is strategic competition between the U.S. and China over military primacy in East Asia, not maritime law or freedom of navigation. “By directly defying Washington in the South China Sea, Beijing is showing that American military power is no longer unchallengeable or unchallenged.” By pushing back, Washington is trying to reassert its military presence and make clear that it will not back down from confrontation in any of the region’s hot spots.

Confrontations between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea are “inherently dangerous,” White says. The stakes are high, as roughly one-third of global maritime trade passes through the waterway, and the near-collision last September was a classic example of brinkmanship. “If both sides expect the other to back off then they will both believe they can push ahead without risking a war. If either or both miscalculate the other’s resolve, they each face the choice between fighting or a humiliating back-down—and great powers throughout history usually prefer to fight than retreat. This is why, while war between America and China is not inevitable, it is a real risk—especially if one or both sides behaves recklessly or foolishly.”