How China Avoids War in the South China Sea


Beijing uses force, but not enough to cause an armed conflict.

by Nicolai Fogth Gjøde Nielsen
Seven East Asian nation-states are currently laying territorial claim on often overlapping areas in the South China Sea. The claims are over different portions of the sea and various small, mostly uninhabited islands. Possessing the territories is just a matter of national prestige, as the South China Sea contains an estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and over $3 trillion worth of trade passing through annually.

China is claiming the lion’s share, through its Nine-Dash Line, a maritime demarcation line China created that encompasses almost the entirety of the South China Sea (around 85-90 percent). So far, China has built 3000 acres of new land in the South China Sea, some within disputed areas, on which it placed numerous military installations, including radars, surface-to-air missiles and paved runways capable of accommodating fighter jets.

China is currently in the process of modernization its armed forces, which is a part of the government’s national rejuvenation plan. In terms of conventional forces, China has the largest armed forces in the world in sheer manpower, with approximately twice as many active and reserve personnel than the United States. China also has nuclear capabilities, with an estimated 260 nuclear warheads. Albeit Beijing’s stockpile much smaller than that of America’s or Russia’s, it is gradually growing. For instance, U.S. intelligence estimates that of the 260 Chinese warheads, 100 of them will have long-range missile capabilities by 2020, which will have the ability to reach the United States. However, compared to the approximately 6500-7000 warheads Russia’s and America’s arsenals consist of, China’s seems rather meager.