Is the South China Sea Dispute a Foregone Conclusion?


The security temperature in the South China Sea (SCS) has ratcheted precipitously in recent weeks. On May 2, news outlet CNBC reported U.S. intelligence that China has installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on three fortified outposts in the Spratly Islands.

This deployment follows the installation in April of jamming equipment that disrupts military communications and radar systems – also on outposts in the Spratlys.

This continued militarization of SCS features that Beijing controls comes on the back of extensive land reclamation activities – to the tune of 3,200 acres of land – since 2013; the contravention of a 2015 verbal agreement between Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama not to militarize Chinese-occupied features; and Beijing’s blatant rejection of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in 2016 in favor of the Philippines.

Most worryingly, the deployment of missiles – for the first time – provides China with offensive power projection capabilities, augmenting its existing anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) naval strategy against its primary rival, the United States.

All these developments, coupled with the lack of any concerted or robust response from the United States and its allies and partners in the region, point to the inevitable conclusion that the sovereignty dispute in the SCS has – irreversibly – become a foregone conclusion. Three compelling reasons justify this assertion.

Beijing’s Preoccupation with Security

First, China sees the SCS issue as a security matter of paramount importance, according it the status of a “core interest” – on par with resolution of the Taiwan question.

From Beijing’s perspective, the greatest threat to its national security stems from the United States and its naval dominance in the Western Pacific – strengthened by the military capabilities of its Japanese and Australian allies.

Surveillance and control over the SCS allows Beijing to detect and deter Washington’s maritime coercion, should the latter choose to do so. The recent deployment of offensive missiles perpetuates the A2/AD strategy of preventing the U.S. Navy’s access to regional waters, while also permitting power projection far from Chinese shores. This safeguards China’s security.