Between Competition and War: Complex Security Overlay and the South China Sea

Joshua Hastey, Scott Romaniuk

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review



The South China Sea (SCS) has become the setting of one of the most intensive territorial and resource disputes in history. A myriad of small and medium states, together with the two greatest economic and military powers in the contemporary period, have laid claim to and contest states’ alternative claims to large sections of the SCS. China, as a revisionist power, has made the most sweeping claim of all states, designating nearly the entire sea as its own. In addition to its extensive resources, the SCS is a vital strategic waterway and a strategic locale critical for future power projection by existing great and rising powers. This chapter unpacks the central components of the conflict in the SCS that has been steadily intensifying since states began staking claims over islands and zones within the SCS in the 1970s. In doing so, we refer to the SCS as a “system of systems” involving multi-dimensional security overlay based on political, economic, and military interests as well as power projections. We argue that the central challenge facing would-be defenders of the status quo is their decentralized organization, with the US, the Philippines, and Vietnam intersecting in various subsystems though not forming a cohesive cooperative security system with a unified, cohesive purpose. Concurrently, China has seen much more success in marshalling a coherent, focused (Sinocentrist) stratagem for its salami-slicing approach in the region, much to the detriment of the region's status quo actors, even in spite of internal competition and rivalry regarding China's grand strategy and geopolitical trajectory as a state.

Geography and national security in the South China Sea

Situated at the nexus of the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean, the SCS is one of the world's busiest bodies of water. More than half of the world's yearly shipping by tonnage passes through the various straits – Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar – that feed into the SCS, with more than six times as much oil passing through these straits each year than through the Suez Canal. Beyond its importance as a shipping hub, the SCS itself is resource rich, with fisheries that provide a large portion of the nutrition for the inhabitants of the states around it and plentiful, largely untapped, hydrocarbon deposits under the seabed.
State policies, driven in part by revisionist behaviour, have been formulated and implemented not only to support major geographic claims and politicomilitary positions but also to contain the growing military and economic power – notably that of China – and interests of competing states in the region. The US, with its self-claimed “Pivot to Asia” in 2010 and its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” efforts to curb the economic and military interests of China and others, has contributed to the militarization of the SCS. China, for its part, has constructed military facilities on several features in the SCS. The US and other outside actors largely situate their concerns regarding the SCS in terms of preserving freedom of navigation (FON). This volume engages the geostrategic motivations, interests, and reactive measures of states concerning the SCS, and aims to present the most comprehensive and elucidating volume on states’ policies and interests in the SCS and their system impact on the security architecture of the region.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSecurity, Strategy, and Military Dynamics in the South China Sea: Cross-National Perspectives
EditorsGordon Houlden, Scott N. Romaniuk, Nong Hong
Place of PublicationBristol
PublisherBristol University Press
ISBN (Electronic)978-1529213478
ISBN (Print)978-1529213454
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jul 2021


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