China has already established escalation dominance in the South China Sea


Bryan Clark of Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments argues that China has acquired the ability to control the scope and pace of escalations in the South China Sea – and the US is a willing partner because it has not developed the capabilities to proportionally respond to Chinese provocations.

China has the ability to control the South China Sea because it has established escalation dominance in that area.

Let’s go through some basic numbers. China now has the world’s largest navy, which has more than 300 ships. If you want to be able to conduct sea control in a region, having a big navy is a valuable part of that.

China is able to focus the attention of that navy on near seas to an extent that its competitors like the US cannot. We’ve got a global responsibility, a global navy, whereas China’s got the luxury of focusing more of its attention on the near seas, including the South China Sea.

Arguably, despite China’s assertions about its far seas aspirations, their navy is really focused on near seas operations. Even the newer ships are devoted more to sea control missions in a coastal environment than they are in power projection in an overseas environment. It’s got a much smaller proportion of large surface combatants than the US Navy that would be designed for overseas operations. It’s got much fewer number of vertical launch system cells than the US Navy does. It’s got a smaller number of nuclear submarines that would be more designed for overseas operations.

The second part of the Chinese maritime capability portfolio is the coast guard. China has got the world’s largest coast guard. It has more than a thousand ships, and a couple hundred of those are able to operate throughout the South China Sea, and only about a dozen of those are able to actually deploy out overseas. They are focused very much on the East and South China Seas.

The maritime militia is probably the most important part of the maritime capability portfolio. Thousands of ships have been brought into service to support the Chinese operations in the East and South China Seas. They routinely harass and interfere with ships of the United States Navy and other navies. It gives the Chinese a capability that is not really mirrored on the other side by the US.

There are multiple islands in the South China Sea that are now built up, armed and able to support air operations, giving the Chinese the ability to control, surveil, monitor and conduct air defense in parts of the South China Sea persistently without having to deploy ships there. Arguably, the Chinese could have a terrestrial-based surveillance and air defense network over the South China Sea. The ability to control the air is a key part of controlling the seas.