The United States Involvement in the South China Sea Dispute

by Jianying Ma (Author)
©2022 Monographs XVI, 390 Pages
Series: The Belt and Road Initiative, Volume 1


The South China Sea dispute not only involves the sovereignty and security interests of the countries concerned, but also the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region. As the South China Sea dispute has evolved, the United States, with its continuous engagement, has played a vital role in contributing to the complexity and internationalization of the dispute. This book summarizes American strategies in the South China Sea, and comprehensively examines the role of the United States in this maritime dispute from both historical and realistic perspectives. It argues that the U.S. policy towards the South China Sea dispute is highly skillful and targeted. The degree of the U.S. involvement in the disputes mainly depends on three factors, namely its Asia-Pacific strategy and interest demand, its strategy towards China, and the speed of China’s rise and how the United States perceives it.
This book will be of great interest to those who study or focus on international relations, China-U.S. relations, maritime affairs, U.S. foreign policy, and East Asian security studies. University libraries, public libraries, think tanks, institutes for marine affairs, and engaged private individuals who are interested in international relations, China-U.S. relations, maritime disputes, South China Sea issues, etc., will also be interested in this book.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Advance Praise
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Tables
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Significance of the Book
  • Previous Literature
  • Organization of the Book
  • 1 Origins and Development of the SCS Issue
  • Geostrategic Importance of the SCS
  • Origins and Evolution of the SCS Issue
  • The Nature of the SCS Issue and the Status Quo of the Disputes
  • The Development Trend of the SCS Issue
  • 2 The U.S. SCS Policy during the Cold War
  • American Connection with the SCS in the Early Times
  • WWII and the Change of American Recognition towards the SCS
  • Intentional Ambiguity over the Issues of Sovereignty in the SCS
  • Reluctant Neutrality
  • 3 The U.S. Policy Adjustment on the SCS after the Cold War
  • The Situation in the Asia-Pacific Region after the Cold War
  • Shaping U.S. Security Strategy in the Asia-Pacific Region after the Cold War
  • Recalibrating U.S. Strategy in the SCS in the Post-Cold War Era
  • Continuous Intervention but Not Falling into the Dispute Trap
  • 4 The U.S. Strategic Rebalance and the SCS Dispute
  • The Background of the Rebalancing Strategy
  • Strategic Initiatives of the Rebalancing Strategy
  • Rebalancing Strategy and the U.S. Policy Shift on SCS
  • The U.S. Forceful Intervention in the SCS Issue
  • 5 Responses of Major Neighboring Countries around China
  • ASEAN: Mingled Hope and Fear
  • Japan: Departure from Asia for America
  • India: From “Look East” to “Act East”
  • Russia: Double-Headed Eagle Policy
  • Australia: Embrace of the United States
  • 6 The U.S. Congressional Involvement in the SCS Dispute
  • The Role of Congress in the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy
  • The Legislations
  • Holding Hearings
  • Requiring Reports
  • Congressmen’s Direct Participation
  • The Characteristics and Impact of Congressional Involvement in the SCS Issue
  • 7 China-U.S. Contention over Freedom of Navigation in the SCS
  • America’s Maritime Freedom Doctrine
  • The FON Program
  • The U.S. FONOPs against China
  • The Characteristics of the U.S. FONOPs Concerning China
  • The Essence of China-U.S. Contest on FON in the SCS
  • 8 The U.S. Understanding on China’s Maritime Militia
  • Maritime Militia: China’s Third Maritime Force?
  • U.S. Understanding of the Role and Function of China’s Maritime Militia
  • U.S. Assessment on the Influence of China’s Maritime Militia
  • U.S. Policy Response to China’s Maritime Militia
  • An Assessment of U.S. Cognition and Response
  • 9 The Trump Administration’s Policy on the SCS
  • The Debates over the Trump Administration’s SCS Policy in the Early Days
  • The Trump Administration’s Attitudes toward the SCS Issue
  • The Trump Administration’s Concrete Steps to Intervene in the SCS Issue
  • The Trump Administration’s Strategic Motivations for Intervening in the SCS Issue
  • The Orientation of U.S. SCS Policy
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

←x | xi→


I received generous help from many people in writing this book and would like to acknowledge them here.

I am deeply grateful to Dr. Jia Wenshan, Dean of Global Engagement Academy at Shandong University (Weihai), China, and Professor of Communication and Global Studies at Chapman University for his enthusiastic encouragement and recommendation to publish this book and include it in the Belt & Road Initiative: Interdisciplinary Perspectives series edited by him. I am also very grateful to Prof. Jenn-Jaw Soong at the Department of Political Science of National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan, for giving his insightful and constructive comments of the manuscript. I have been inspired by various exchanges with them.

I owe my sincere appreciation to a number of individuals for their invaluable support. This goes especially to Dr. Mark Hoskin, Department of History, SOAS, University of London, UK, and Ms. Hui Siyuan of Beijing International Studies University, China, for their wonderful language correction and polishing. Thanks to these scholars for their great help to me. They are Prof. Christopher Len of National University of Singapore, Prof. GuoYuan of Jinan University, Dr. Hu Bo of Peking University, Dr. Zhang Mingliang of Jinan University, Dr. PanYue of Jinan University, Prof. Zhao Weihua of Fudan University, Dr. Zeng Huansheng of National Taiwan Ocean University, Prof. Pang Zhongying of Ocean University ←xi | xii→of China, Prof. Shen Dingli of Fudan University, Prof. Tang Yi of National Chengchi University, Dr. Ma Bin of Fudan University, and Dr. Liu Yanhua of China National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their valuable insights and all people at Peter Lang Publishing who participated in the process for their highly efficient, professional, and friendly cooperation. This applies specifically to the production editor Malini, editorial assistant Suma George, the production manager Jackie Pavlovic and the commissioning editor Li Na. Their academic and editing advice undoubtedly improved the quality of the final version of the text.

Last but not least, I am very thankful to my parents, Ma Jingxun and Zhao Longjun, and my mother-in-law, Liu Chuancai, for their unconditional love and support. I owe my deepest gratitude to my wife Wang Shuzhen and my daughter Ma Junru, for their dedication to and faith in me. Their love and care have given me the courage to pursue my dream.

List of Abbreviations


Australian Defense Force


Air Defense Identification Zone


ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting


Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation


ASEAN Regional Forum


Association of Southeast Asian Nations


Asia-Europe Meeting


Belt and Road Initiative


China-ASEAN Free Trade Area


China’s Coast Guard


Code of Conduct in the South China Sea


Congressional Research Service


Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea


Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea


Department of Defense


Department of State


Exclusive Economic Zone


Energy Information Administration


Freedom of Navigation


Freedom of Navigation Operations


Foreign Relations of the United States←xiii | xiv→


Free Trade Agreement


Group of Seven


Gross Domestic Product


U.S. Government Printing Office


Joint Chiefs of Staff


U.S. Marine Air Ground Task Force


Maritime Domain Awareness


Maritime Law Enforcement


National Congress of the Communist Party of China


National Defense Mobilization Committee


National Security Council


National Security Directive


National Security Decision Directives


People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia


Presidential Decision Directive


People’s Liberation Army of China


People’s Liberation Army Navy of China


People’s Republic of China


Quadrilateral Security Dialogue


Royal Australian Navy


Republic of China


Republic of Korea


South China Sea


Trans-Pacific Partnership


United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea


U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission


U.S. Coast Guard


Western Pacific Naval Symposium


World Trade Organization


World War II


The Chinese descriptive Nanhai (南海) is commonly recognized in the international community as the South China Sea (SCS).1 It is a marginal sea adjoining the Western Pacific Ocean between 23°27’ north latitude and 3° south latitude, and between 99°10’ east longitude and 122°10’ east longitude, encompassing an area of around 3,500,000 square kilometers. In China’s official and public discourse, it is bounded in the north by Guangdong’s southern coastline and the southern Taiwan Strait (23° N), in the south by James Shoal (4° N) and the Natuna Islands in Indonesia, southern Vietnam’s coastline (108° E), and in the east by Sarawak, Sabah in Malaysia and Palawan, Luzon in the Philippines (120° E). China’s Nanhai Zhudao (the South China Sea Islands) consists of Dongsha Qundao (Pratas Islands), Xisha Qundao (Paracel Islands), Zhongsha Qundao (Macclesfield Bank), and Nansha Qundao (Spratly Islands).2 Like the Mediterranean Sea and the Caribbean Sea, the SCS is mostly surrounded by continents and islands, placing it alongside them as one of the three major inland seas in the world.3

The SCS islands and their adjacent waters have been China’s territory since ancient times. China is not only the first country to discover and name islands and reefs, but also the first to exercise sovereignty and jurisdiction over the SCS.4 Therefore, China has sufficient historical and legal support to justify its ←1 | 2→sovereignty claims. In fact, China’s sovereignty over the SCS islands was not widely challenged until the end of World War Two (WWII). The disputes in the SCS during this period were mainly derived from French aggression and Chinese resistance, while the other colonial masters of now independent countries around the SCS did not make any claims to sovereignty. With the development of international law of the sea since the 1950s, especially the discovery of undersea oil and gas resources in the SCS, some Southeast Asian countries began to claim sovereignty over the SCS islands one after another, resulting in the emergence of the SCS issue. In the evolution of disputes in the SCS, intervention by powers outside the region, especially the United States, has become the most important international factor in any prospect of a dispute resolution.

Significance of the Book

The United States plays a pivotal role in the SCS issue. Historically, the United States is not only the initiator of the unresolved sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the SCS after WWII, but also the State that directly interferes in the SCS by frequently sending military forces on patrols without justifiable reasons, thereby disregarding China’s sovereignty. Throughout the Cold War, the SCS was a key area of great strategic and geopolitical importance in the U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy that is assigned to the Seventh Fleet. Consequently, the SCS issue is utilized as an excuse and a tool to contain China and the Soviet Union in a bid to encircle the Soviet bloc in East Asia.

After the Cold War, the SCS was regarded by the United States as a potential source of conflict affecting the stability of the Asia-Pacific region, endangering its interests, and also as an ideal location to carry out its containment strategy against China. Therefore, after the Cold War the United States became actively involved in the SCS dispute. It has repeatedly reaffirmed that the peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the SCS are in the fundamental interests of the United States. The United States opposes the use or threat of force and maintains that all disputing parties should resolve their differences through diplomatic efforts and abide by the recognized principles of international law, in particular the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), despite the fact that the Congress has not ratified the UNCLOS, and remains unlikely to do so.

In terms of practical development, the United States has become the most critical external factor affecting the situation in the SCS. With the rapid rise ←2 | 3→of China, the United States has attached more importance to the geopolitical importance of the SCS and listed it as the southern frontier as it seeks to contain China’s rise. On the one hand, the United States accuses China of being belligerent and threatening the freedom of navigation in the region, sending warships in the vicinity of the islands and flying fighters over them to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), directly challenging China’s sovereign rights and interests in the SCS.

On the other hand, in the process of competing with China for sovereignty and maritime rights in the SCS, some disputing countries in the SCS have also tried to drag in the United States to create a confrontation between it and China so that they reap the rewards without physical exposure. American treaty allies (such as the Philippines) and potential strategic partners (such as Vietnam) show they intend to exert continual pressure on China through joint efforts, attempting to force China into making concessions on the SCS issue. This provides a perfect opportunity for the United States to intervene in the SCS issue: The overlapping identities of the U.S. Asia-Pacific allies/partners and the States with territorial claims in the SCS continually prompt the United States to intervene in the SCS issue on the grounds of maintaining the alliance system created in the post-colonial era and assuming partnership obligations that suit its own interests. Although the United States is not a direct party to the SCS dispute, it cannot be ignored in the near future when the management and mitigation of relevant disputes are considered.

Given the importance of the United States in the SCS dispute, this book is devoted to providing a comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date analysis of the U.S. policy in the SCS, and its involvement and impact on potential dispute-solving processes, mainly from a historical and realist perspective. It endeavors to answer the following questions: What influence has the United States had in the SCS dispute? What policy and stance has the United States adopted in the SCS dispute and how has the United States shifted its policy from neutrality to proactive engagement? What is the strategic motive behind it? Also, has the United States, as it claims, taken no position on the competing sovereignty claims in the SCS? The United States has intervened strongly in the SCS during recent years. What is the orientation of its intervention? What prospects are there for U.S. policy in the SCS in the future?

The disputes in the SCS not only concern China’s territorial sovereignty and integrity, but also the security of China’s sea lanes and its core maritime rights and interests. It is a major strategic issue involving China’s sovereignty, security, and future development. As an outsider, the United States is not a direct ←3 | 4→disputant in the SCS issue, so the SCS dispute should not be a stumbling block to China-U.S. relations. But the United States has intensified its interference in the SCS issue under the pretext of safeguarding freedom of navigation in recent years, in response to the rapid rise of China. Consequently, the SCS issue has become an important strategic issue in China-U.S. relations. In this regard, studies of the SCS dispute between the United States and China are significant for the following reasons.


XVI, 390
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (April)
Jiyanying Ma The United States Involvement in the South China Sea Dispute The United States South China Sea dispute China Maritime security Asia-Pacific security China-U.S. relations Territorial sovereignty Great Power competition China-ASEAN relations Vietnam the Philippines
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XVI, 390 pp., 7 tables.

Biographical notes

Jianying Ma (Author)

Jianying Ma (PhD in International Relations, Fudan University, China) is Associate Professor at Shandong Normal University in China. He was a visiting fellow at Washington University in St. Louis (2010-2011). His research fields include China’s maritime dispute and China-U.S. relations. He has published 2 books and more than 30 papers.


Title: The United States Involvement in the South China Sea Dispute
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408 pages