Global Challenges
Issue no. 1 | February 2017
South China Sea: War on the Horizon?
Global Challenges
Issue no. 1 | February 2017
South China Sea | Article 3

The US Pivot Strategy: A Change of Paradigm in the South China Sea?

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On 1 May 1898, the United States Asiatic Squadron defeated the Spanish in Manila Bay, thus ushering in over 100 years of almost uninterrupted US military presence in the South China Sea. For most of the twentieth century, the United States had military bases in the Philippines, with additional facilities in Thailand, South Vietnam, and Taiwan.

Following its defeat in the Vietnam War, the United States gradually was evicted or withdrew from those locations, but even so, sent ships regularly throughout the South China Sea from Singapore as well as from its bases in Japan, Guam, and, of course, the headquarters of the US Pacific Command in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

In the last few years, though, history has seemed to go into reverse. The United States, as part of what the Obama White House has called a “pivot” to Asia, has negotiated facilities arrangements with Malaysia and Australia, increased its naval presence in Singapore, signed a “defense framework agreement” with India, and, most strikingly, set up military-to-military ties with Vietnam and reestablished basing arrangements with the Philippines. High-ranking military officers, Cabinet officials, and the president himself have repeatedly said that the United States plans to extend and deepen its military activities in Southeast Asia and, more generally, East Asia. Among those activities are regular naval “freedom of navigation” exercises near Scarborough Shoal and in the Spratly Islands, both claimed by China as part of their territorial waters.

These actions can, of course, be interpreted as early warning signs of a second cold war in the region, with the United States reprising its anti-China policies of the 1950s and 1960s. Additional evidence for such an interpretation comes from another element of the pivot, namely the trade agreement – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – recently signed with various countries bordering the Pacific. The TPP does not include China, and from that fact, as well as Chinese tensions with allies of the United States such as Japan and South Korea, one might well conclude that the South China Sea is one of the main locations where the United States has decided to draw the line.

Such a view, though, is contestable, and that for three reasons. First, the fact that there have been numerous basing agreements and other forms of military cooperation set-up does not mean that those actions were designed as means to an anti-China end. These actions are what the United States does, not just in the South China Sea, or in East Asia more generally, but throughout the world. At regular intervals, for many decades, the United States has established military facilities and/or worked out military-to-military ties in every region of the world: first Central America and the Caribbean, then Western Europe, South America, East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and, most recently, sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, the rationale for these moves differs from one time period and one place to another, with anti-communism, anti-narcotics trafficking, and anti-terrorism being the most common justifications. In effect, we have one set of policy instruments – basing and joint agreements – and multiple goals that those instruments are supposed to bring about. (The same can be said about trade agreements, which the United States has also been signing for decades.) In effect, the policy is driven by means, not ends: US officials set up bases and sign military agreements because that is what they know how to do, not necessarily because they intend to confront China. the policy is driven by means, not ends: US officials set up bases and sign military agreements because that is what they know how to do, not necessarily because they intend to confront China.

Second, lest this position be thought of as too cynical, consider the details of US activity in the South China Sea. If all goes as planned, the United States will have facilities to rotate an aircraft carrier through the area more easily than in the past; there will be a few thousand Marines stationed in the region; and the United States will be able to carry out various sorts of air patrols (e.g., on surveillance or anti-submarine missions). However, each of these activities could have been carried out by the United States prior to the pivot, though of course not as easily as with the new basing arrangements. Moreover, the scale of the planned US military presence in the South China Sea is far more limited than during the 1950s and 1960s. What is lacking, notably, is any kind of infantry presence, such as in Japan. Doubtless this is because of the “no land wars in Asia” lesson learned, twice, by the United States after the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Thus, at the very least, there is a significant disproportion between the rhetoric connected with the pivot, on the one hand, and the actual military presence and activities agreed to or planned, on the other.

Third, there is no evidence that the Obama administration saw itself as preparing for military clashes with China. Understandably, the US Navy is unhappy about the growth in the size and capability of China’s South Sea Fleet, but if they dominated policymaking in Washington, we would expect a considerably greater scale to the pivot and many more confrontational patrols than have been the case. In fact, even the navy is split, having invited China to participate in its biennial RIMPAC maritime exercise. Beyond the South China Sea, the United States put considerable efforts into cooperating with China on Beyond the South China Sea, the United States put considerable efforts into cooperating with China on a host of global and regional issues, from climate change and economic matters to anti-terror policies and North Korean nuclear weapons. a host of global and regional issues, from climate change and economic matters to anti-terror policies and North Korean nuclear weapons. Indeed, cooperative arrangements were institutionalised through the “Strategic and Economic Dialogue” and other regularly occurring consultative fora. Will a new Trump administration change this? Perhaps, but that would involve military risks, frighten US allies, and endanger the economic health of hundreds, if not thousands, of US companies.

In conclusion, none of these points means that a US-China military confrontation in the South China Sea is impossible. Accidents can and will occur, but there is nothing to suggest that they cannot be contained or that they are a precursor to a new cold war. Recent US military actions need to be taken with not one, but many, grains of salt.

By Prof. David Sylvan,
Department of International Relations/Political Science,
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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Header image caption: On 1 May 1898, at Manila Bay in the Philippines, the US Asiatic Squadron destroyed the Spanish Pacific fleet in the first major battle of the Spanish-American War (April–August 1898).

Info Box

US Military Forces in the Region

1. US military bases

Japan: Misawa, Atsugi, Yokosuka, Okinawa, Sasebo (35,500 troops).
South Korea: Chinhae (25,000 troops).
Singapore: 122 troops.
Guam (United States/Mariana Islands): 3,000 troops.
Australia: Darwin (2500 troops).

2. US Navy Fleet

The Seventh Fleet is part of the United States Pacific Fleet. It is headquartered at US Fleet Activities Yokosuka, in Yokosuka, Japan, with some units based in Japan and South Korea. At present, it is the largest of the forward-deployed US fleets, with 60 to 70 ships, 300 aircraft and 40,000 Navy and Marine Corps personnel.

The Fifth Fleet of the United States Navy is responsible for naval forces in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean.

Source: US Department of Defense.

South China Sea: Elementary Data


East Asia


3.5 million km²

Riparian countries

Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam.


Petroleum, natural gas and fisheries products.

Major route of world maritime trade

Each year, USD 5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea; US trade accounts for USD 1.2 trillion of this total.

Main islands

The South China Sea contains over 250 small islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs and sandbars, most of which have no indigenous people, many of which are naturally under water at high tide, and some of which are permanently submerged.

Source: by Galvin and whybe.ch.

The Disputed Islands

The Spratly Islands

The Spratly Islands are a disputed group of 14 islands, islets and cays and more than 100 reefs, sometimes grouped in submerged old atolls. The archipelago lies off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and southern Vietnam. The islands have no indigenous inhabitants, but offer rich fishing grounds and may contain significant oil and natural gas reserves. Some of the islands have civilian settlements, but of the approximately 45 islands, cays, reefs and shoals that are occupied, all contain structures that are occupied by military forces from Malaysia, Taiwan, China, the Philippines and Vietnam. Additionally, Brunei has claimed an exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The Paracel Islands

The Paracel Islands are a group of islands, reefs, banks and other maritime features. They are controlled (and occupied) by China, and also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. The archipelago is surrounded by productive fishing grounds and a seabed with potential, but as yet unexplored, oil and gas reserves.

Scarborough Shoal

Scarborough Shoal is a disputed territory claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines. Since the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, access to the shoal has been restricted by China. Scarborough Shoal forms a triangle-shaped chain of reefs and rocks with a perimeter of 46 km. It covers an area, including an inner lagoon, of 150 km2. The shoal’s highest point, South Rock, measures 1.8 m above water during high tide.

The Pratas Islands

The Pratas Islands are an atoll in the north of the South China Sea consisting of three islets about 340 km southeast of Hong Kong. Excluding their associated EEZ and territorial waters, the islets comprise about 240 ha, including 64 ha of lagoon area. China claims the islands, but Taiwan controls them and has declared them a national park. The main island of the group, Pratas Island, is the largest of the South China Sea islands.

Macclesfield Bank

Macclesfield Bank is an elongated sunken atoll of underwater reefs and shoals. It lies east of the Paracel Islands, southwest of the Pratas Islands and north of the Spratly Islands. Its length exceeds 130 km southwest-northeast, with a maximal width of more than 70 km. With an ocean area of 6,448 km2 within the outer rim of the reef, although completely submerged without any emergent cays or islets, it is one of the largest atolls of the world. Macclesfield Bank is claimed, in whole or in part, by China and Taiwan.

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