China doesn’t have the capabilities to control the South China Sea


Peter Dutton of U.S. Naval War College is convinced that China is not able to exert control over the South China Sea in circumstances short of war because of the space, determined resistance and potential reactions from other states.
The premise that China has the capability to control the South China Sea in all circumstances short of war with the United States is dubious.

The South China Sea is 1.351 million square miles in size, not including the Gulf of Thailand. It is about 1.4 times the size of the Mediterraneans. To patrol this vast space, China has 125 coast guard vessels over 1,000 tons and 84 maritime militia operating out of Sansha city.

That’s 209 vessels, not including the navy. And since we’re talking about circumstances short of war, it seems reasonable to exclude the Chinese navy in this case, that’s one vessel for every 6,464 square miles. Even if we say there are a few hundred additional part-time militia vessels that might have the capacity to meaningfully support complex sea control operations on a sustained basis, that might make the total of 500 vessels, reducing the problem to one vessel for every 2,702 square miles. Even with superior air and information control, it’s got to be done on the sea in the end.

China’s gray zone tactics has had a very hard time achieving sea control even over a very limited space against a determined adversary. Chinese law enforcement officers pointed out that it is much easier to attack than to defend. To physically block opponents from obstructing operations, the Chinese learned they need three or four vessels for every one of the adversaries.

They learned this from having to defend the operations of the oil rig Hai Yang Shi You 981, when it operated off the Paracels against Vietnamese resistance. It is also important to note that Vietnamese fishermen are still operating around the Paracels. The Chinese have never been entirely successful at driving them out with non-military forces since they took the islands in 1974.

While we’re on the topic of control in circumstances short of armed conflict, there is one more consideration I’d like to raise, that is the deterrent and disruptive role of technology.

Even now, there is something to be said in this regard for the Vietnamese purchase of kilos submarines. If China did in fact seek to exert control over the South China Sea, it is reasonable to predict that Vietnam and others would seek to acquire the sort of technologies that would make Beijing’s task even more difficult. No doubt Vietnam would be aided by outside powers. Japan, India, the United States and Australia have already been active in this regard.

Now to the second question, could China achieve sea control through war with a regional state? Vietnam again is a key potential opponent in this scenario. They have the most skin in the game, the greatest ability of any of the claimants to resist, a great history of resisting major powers, and the determination to do so again if necessary. If China makes war against Vietnam or another regional state, it might be able to take and hold the Spratlys, but then what?

China would be back in the position of having to play a cat-and-mouse game at sea or to defend the specific points at great cost. Additionally, considering warmaking against a regional state, the Chinese must always take into account the potential response of other states. America might have an interest for instance, and taking advantage of the opportunity to involve itself in order to weaken China’s naval capacity. It is not just the American response, the Chinese must take into account the responses of other regional states. Would Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia or Australia stand by if Vietnam is attacked? These states have been willing to acquire largesse through trade with China, but none wants to be dominated by China.