Typical discussions of the South China Sea overstate its importance. Strategist Robert Kaplan has written that “the South China Sea is the future of conflict” and has “critical geo-strategic importance,” because it contains the world’s most important sea lanes and “potentially huge” energy resources.1 These arguments deserve skeptical reception.
Conventional wisdom holds that core U.S. national security interests include preserving the physical safety of the American people, promoting a “deep peace” in Eurasia to avoid great power war, and preventing the rise of a Eurasian hegemon.2 While U.S. military power is sufficient to balance China today, in the future, the United States might need India, Russia, and Japan to offset Chinese strength.3 Thus, the United States needs to protect the sea lanes of communication to enable India, Russia, and Japan to join a China-balancing coalition, should Chinese behavior motivate them to overcome their differences and form one.
Even if we accept this description of U.S. interests, how convincing are Kaplan’s arguments?
Author’s Note: For helpful comments on earlier versions of this article, the author wishes to thank retired Navy Captains Thomas Fedyzsyn, Wayne Hughes, and Jan van Tol, as well as several anonymous Naval War College faculty members.
1. Robert D. Kaplan, “The South China Sea is the Future of Conflict,” Foreign Policy, 15 August 2011, and Asia’s Cauldron: the South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (New York: Random House, 2014), 10.
2. Robert Art, A Grand Strategy for America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), 140. Art identified the first two interests. Aaron Friedberg asserts the third in A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 254.
3. Barry Posen argues that “over the next several decades . . . a coalition of . . . Japan, Russia, and India . . . may need the United States . . . [to] . . . offset Chinese power . . . and the United States may need [them].” Barry Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for US Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 91.
4. Max Fisher, “The South China Sea: Explaining the Dispute,” The New York Times, 14 July 2016, and Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron, 11.
5. Jan van Tol points out that “Japanese SLOCs would be rerouted further north, well away from the reach of most PLA A2/AD systems.” Jan van Tol, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew Krepenevich, and Jim Thomas, “Air Sea Battle: A Point of Departure Operational Concept,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010, 79.
6. Author’s estimate based on Energy Information Administration data.
7. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron, 14.
8. Were China to make dramatic improvements in its ASW capabilities, it still would be hard to find U.S. submarines in the relatively shallow waters of the northern South China Sea. For more detail, see Owen R. Cote Jr., “Assessing the Undersea Balance Between the U.S. and China,” MIT Security Studies Program Working Paper, February 2011.
9. Is the South China Sea geostrategically critical because China relies on SLOCs there? Probably not. A U.S. blockade has a chance only if all China’s land neighbors fully support U.S. efforts, despite enormous financial (and other) incentives not to do so.
10. A “porcupine defense” is one that inflicts great pain on attackers but threatens others not at all. See, for example, William Murray, “Revisiting Taiwan’s Defense Strategy,” Naval War College Review, 61, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 12−38.
11. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron, 10.
12. Energy Information Administration, “Contested Areas of South China Sea Likely Have Few Conventional Oil and Gas Resources,” 13 April 2013.
13. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron, 10.
14. Energy Information Administration, “Contested Areas.”
16. Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 216.