China’s Military Posturing in the East and South China Seas: A Losing Strategy


On January 14, the Center for the National Interest hosted two leading foreign policy practitioners to discuss the increasingly tense security environment in the East and South China Seas. Admiral Dennis Blair, a former Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command and Director of National Intelligence (2009-2010), provided an optimistic assessment of the current regional security situation and highlighted the weakness of China’s current muscular approach. Dov Zakheim, a former Under Secretary of Defense and the Center’s Vice Chairman, offered a more cautious opinion about the durability of the regional status quo.

Admiral Blair began his remarks by drawing a distinction between the economic and security-related disputes confronting the region. Friction between Asian nations over conflicting economic and trade practices has never resulted (and is unlikely to ever result) in armed conflict, but the same cannot be said of security-related issues. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan’s unresolved status continue to represent the region’s largest and most dangerous security challenges, he noted.

More recent tensions involving disputed territory in the East and South China Seas also pose the risk of military confrontation, and this is where Admiral Blair focused the bulk of his attention. Blair argued that the level of national intensity within the countries of rival claimants cannot be explained merely by a desire to exploit deposits of oil and gas and fish reserves near the disputed islands. In Northeast Asia, there are well documented legal and historical reasons for each country’s claims. In the South China Sea, historical and legal reasons are less clear-cut owing to the mobility of local populations and the absence of war.

On a military operations level, Blair noted that Chinese naval vessels and aircraft are encroaching on island features occupied by rival claimants in a more aggressive way than is evident in its behavior towards land disputes (such as with India). China has conducted missile firings, sea and air patrols around the Senkaku islands, and island building activities in the Spratlys with the aim of intimidating rival claimants. Yet, he argued that China must possess a wide margin of air and naval superiority if it is to successfully wrest control of these features. Currently, China does not have such overwhelming superiority over Japan or even Vietnam, not to mention such an operation being highly risky, he added. Blair also noted that China’s efforts to fortify islands and features in the Spratlys are vulnerable to attack by long-range ground weapons stationed on Philippine-controlled Palawan.

Blair advanced three policy recommendations aimed at reducing tensions and the possibility for military confrontation. First, countries in the region should convince China about the futile nature of its military exercises in asserting its claims. Second, the United States and its allies should build up its military posture in the region in order deter Chinese “gunboat diplomacy.” Third, interested parties should look for “imaginative” solutions, such as the joint sharing of resources. On the importance of this final point, Blair stated that deterrence alone is not a long-term winning strategy.

In his remarks, discussant Dr. Dov S. Zakheim outlined a number of daunting economic challenges facing the Chinese leadership. This includes the inefficient and bloated state-owned enterprises, the lack of sophisticated oversight over China’s nascent financial markets, and the transition away from an investment and export-driven economic model towards one driven by domestic consumption. Given these challenges, Zakheim said China could take one of two approaches: it can turn inwards and focus on reforming its economy, or it could divert public attention away from domestic challenges by pursuing a hardline foreign policy against those nations China has quarrels with. In order to get China to move towards the first approach, Zakheim argued that the United States must have a significantly larger military presence in the Asia-Pacific region to deter Chinese assertiveness.

It was precisely on this last point that the he two panelists held noticeably different views. Admiral Blair held a more sanguine view on the current state of the regional military balance. He argued that one has to combine Japan’s forces with those of the United States when assessing the balance. In addition, he reiterated his view that the PLA does not currently have the capabilities to either assert or deny control around disputed island features in the South and East China Seas. Zakheim, on the other hand, argued that the quantity of military hardware between the two sides should not be overlooked. Although the Chinese may have less advanced aircraft and naval vessels than the United States, they still possess larger quantities of equipment that is quite sophisticated, he noted.