KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 287

Conflict at Sea and the Need for Crisis Mechanism in the South China Sea

Senior Fellow, Maritime Institute of Malaysia
Sumathy Permal


A crisis management mechanism is a process or action by which two or more parties deal with an issue when it is difficult or dangerous. Crisis management at sea is required to deal with asymmetric maritime security issues ranging from conventional threats to states to non-conventional risks to law enforcement agencies and coastal populations. Crisis management is helpful in regions with significant strategic and cultural differences and high threat perceptions. It is especially useful in overlapping areas such as the South China Sea, where many vessels and aircraft operate. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the need for a crisis management mechanism between the United States and China as a contingency plan in the event of a conflict in the South China Sea.

1. Introduction 

The South China Sea presents a formidable mix of seemingly intractable issues. The core drivers include multi-nation manoeuvrings, strategic interests, military expansion, and major-power relations. The heart of the drivers lies in the overlapping claims involving China and five other countries (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan). Over the last decade, external powers’ mixed approach to the territorial dispute further complicated the situation and sought to entrench their interests in this vital waterway.

The South China Sea is a transit point and an operating area for navies and air forces in Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf. The South China Sea disputes have become increasingly challenging as the nations involved have prioritised their interests over the common desire of regional and international communities to avoid adverse situations. US-China rivalry in the South China Sea has escalated beyond trade, access, and commerce to outright power rivalry and confrontation.

2. Chinese Claims and Actions in the South China Sea

China maintains that she addresses South China Sea matters peacefully through negotiation and consultation by countries directly involved based on respect for historical facts, international law, and peace and stability as jointly upheld by China and ASEAN countries. The question remains whether the region is indeed “peaceful”, as commonly referred to by China, ASEAN, and other countries indirectly interested in open and free seas.

The South China Sea dispute is associated with China’s maritime strategy. It requires in-depth defence on many layers because China’s interest in the South China Sea is tied to its maritime strategy. Events have pointed out that China has consistently asserted its ownership and firm approaches, as outlined by China’s active defence strategy in 1982[i]. The maritime strategy is delineated in three stages. In the first stage, from 2000 to 2010, China was to establish control of waters within the First Island Chain that links the Okinawa Prefecture, Taiwan, and the Philippines. In the second stage, from 2010 to 2020, China would seek to establish control of waters within the Second Island Chain that links the Ogasawara Island chain, Guam, and Indonesia. From 2020 until 2040, the final stage would see China having the control to keep out US military presence in the Asia Pacific. An analysis of China Active Defense points out that China is implementing the strategy incrementally in the South China Sea. This strong position by China is also the main bone of contention between the US and China in the South China Sea.

In January 2021, China’s National People’s Congress standing committee passed a new law authorising the CCG to use “all necessary means” to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels and defining the circumstances under which different weapons, “handheld, shipborne, or airborne,” can be used. It also allows for demolishing structures built by other claimants in areas China considers its own. This new law is another manifestation of the CCG’s expanding role. The roles and practices of the CCG have generally been in line with those of other coast guards worldwide. This specific law, however, lays out the powers and duties of the CCG in so-called “jurisdictional waters,” which include the highly contested areas in the South China Sea.

Beijing’s South China Sea moves have ramped up with the passing of a law allowing the China Coast Guard (CCG) to fire on what it identifies as illegal foreign vessels in waters under its jurisdiction. By virtue of China’s nine-dash line claim, this law applies to the entire South China Sea. China’s claims are opposed by other South China Sea claimants and numerous non-claimant countries. The law has proven controversial and raises concerns over whether it will increase the risk of confrontation and conflict in the disputed waters.

The primary question surrounding the weaponisation of China’s coast guard is not the kinds of weapons employed but whether the circumstances under which it is allowed to use them comply with international practices and standards. That the new law allows the use of weapons against foreign ships at reefs claimed by China is of grave concern to other claimants and users of the South China Sea. The fact that the law authorises the destruction of structures built by other claimants even further bolsters the CCG’s capability to safeguard national sovereignty, security, and maritime rights in the disputed areas of the South China Sea at the expense of other claimants. The new CCG law’s application over disputed areas will raise additional complications and have operational implications for other vessels operating in the area, including those of the United States Navy. It also shows China is increasing its presence and might in the South China Sea.

3. United States Interest in the South China Sea

United States’ position is that China’s actions in the South China Sea are completely unlawful, and the US seek to preserve peace and stability and uphold freedom of the sea. The US “deplores the use of force” by Chinese maritime and naval vessels in the South China Sea territorial disputes. The United States Armed Forces operations support freedom of navigation rights in international waters and air space in the South China Sea. The US views the tension between China and other claimants in the South China Sea as continued challenges to all claimants and disrupting the free flow of commerce. Since American Pivot to Asia in 2011, approximately 50-60 ships of the 500-600 US Navy ships operating from the Pacific are in the South China Sea, and the US Navy endeavoured to be continuously present in the South China Sea to protect transit passage and commerce. The United States Navy (USN) has been conducting regular Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOPs) in the South China Sea since 2015. Before this, USN survey ships and Chinese Navy frigates had encounters in the Yellow Sea in March 2001 and 2009 involving the USNS Impeccable surveillance ship with Chinese government vessels. The main contentious issue lies concerning operations by the USN challenging China’s claims to her territorial sea. The US affirms that the USN will continue to sail, fly, and operate wherever international law allows. The US also encourages its allies and partners to conduct FONOPs.

The primary reason for the USN to conduct FONOPS is to challenge the extended Chinese facilities and military outposts in the South China Sea. By doing so, the US seems to be endangering the free flow of trade, threatening other nations’ sovereignty, and undermining regional stability. China’s activities in the South China Sea are directed toward militarising the features in the South China Sea and having firm control over its sea lanes of communication.

There are two significant reasons for the US involvement in the South China Sea. The first is to safeguard the freedom of navigation the US promotes for military activities. China has a unilateral nine-dashed line claiming the entire South China Sea basin. If this claim were accepted, the US’s freedom of navigation in the South China Sea would be challenged. Safety of navigation and overflight and the freedom of sea lines of communication are of critical strategic interest to the US, which uses the South China Sea as a transit point and an operating area for the US Navy and Air Force between military bases in Asia and the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf areas. Secondly, the US has always been interested in the area because it offers the shortest route from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean and is essential for the movement of US fleets.

Undoubtedly, the South China Sea has been a place where freedom of navigation for military purposes is widely exercised—increased presence and manoeuvres of warships cruising in the disputed area or flying over the airspace above. As a result of these actions, the level of insecurity in several states has increased, and the probability of conflict at sea is high.

4. Indo-Pacific Strategy

Asia and the Pacific are the most important regions in the 21st century. These two oceans also emerged as a centre for geostrategic competitions between the United States and China. Geographically covering 60% of the sea, the two crucial regions are conceptually constructed as one as the Indo-Pacific region. Hence, the US readout focused on the country’s next steps in its Indo-Pacific strategy. China opposes the Indo-Pacific strategy as it aims to contain China. It is clear that China’s Asia security and US Indo-Pacific strategy overlap in the South China Sea.

Consequently, the order in the South China Sea has changed. Asia’s security architecture to China is becoming more stable because of US advances and disinformation on China’s action in maritime areas. To the United States, it holds the responsibility to free the region from aggression. Russia’s attack on Ukraine serves as a recent warning to ensure no power is left unchecked in maintaining US dominance as the great power.

US-China relations are a high stake, and the competition and contestation across the multifaceted front, including economic, military, and strategic influence in Asia, is accelerating. The tension is more pronounced, much narrowed to conflict aversion, partially due to the Russia-Ukraine war that erupted in Europe and the long-standing tension regarding Taiwan Straits. China condemns US arms sales to Taiwan as undermining China’s sovereignty interests and as a means for the US to exert pressure on China’s control over Taiwan. On the other hand, the US blames China for “bullying and aggressive” behaviours that could undermine peace in Asia.

5. Existing Maritime Crisis Management Tools applicable to US and China

There is an existing mechanism agreed upon by two or more parties in the South China Sea. This mechanism includes safety measures and procedures intended to facilitate communication when ships and aircraft make contact.

  1. International Maritime Organization’s Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREG 11972 provided the rules pertaining to signals, communication, and prevention of collisions. COLREG applies to the high seas, the EEZ, the territorial seas and Straits Used for International Navigation (SUFFIN).
  2. International Civil Aviation Organization’s rules of the air provide for Rules of the Air and Air Traffic Control for standard, practice, and procedure since 1945 solely to improve flight safety and ensure adequate air traffic services over the high seas. Contracting parties have the obligation of the Convention to notify the Organization of any differences between their national regulations and practices and the international standards. China established an air defence identification zone referred to as “The East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone” on 24th November 2013. The zone includes the airspace within the area enclosed by the outer limits of China’s territorial waters and six other points. An air defence identification zone is a defensive area of airspace established by a coastal state beyond its territorial airspace. It is used to identify, monitor, control and react promptly to aircraft entering this zone that may pose air threats. Besides China, other countries, including the United States, Canada, Japan, and South Korea, have established such air defence identification zones since 1950. However, China’s ADIZ is not applicable in the South China Sea.
  3. US-China hotlines 2015. The US and China established military hotlines and rules of behaviour to govern air-air encounters. The hotline is to reduce flare-ups between militaries in the South China Sea.
  4. China-ASEAN (10+1) cooperation Hotlines. ASEAN and China established Hotlines to deal with South China Sea issues in 2015. However, the utility of such a mechanism has been limited, especially in reducing the Chinese presence in the other claimants operating areas.
  5. US-China Agreement on Rules of Behavior, 2014.
  6. MOU on Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters, Air–Air 2015.

Apart from the maritime crisis management tools above, countries in Southeast Asia are also keeping much hope in the existing ASEAN-led dialogue, such as the ASEAN Defence Minister Meeting (ADMM), ASEAN Defence Minister Plus Meeting (ADMM Plus) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) to deal with growing complexity in the maritime front and focusing on the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes. Recently, there are also new mini-lateral defence groupings by the US, Japan, Australia, and India (QUAD) and Trilateral Security Partnership between the Australia-UK and US (AUKUS). These new securities set up points countries are preparing towards conflict targeted mechanism to address security architecture in this region.

6. Recent Developments

Shangri La Dialogue is one of Asia’s most high-profile gatherings of security and defence ministers, chiefs of staff, policymakers, and think-tanks. It focuses on Asia security issues of interest to the US and its Asian and Pacific partners. One of the highlights of the 2022 summits will be a side meeting between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III and China’s State Councillor Minister of National Defense, General Wei Fang. Why is this so important? The simple answer is that the defence of both China and the United States are meeting in the aftermath of the growing possibility of a crisis in Asia on strategic sea areas in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. The risk of a conflict is obvious, and both the United States and China have agreed to talk about communication and risk reduction.

Before the Shangri-La Dialogue, another mega diplomatic meeting concluded in May 2022 in Washington: the ASEAN-US Summit, which emphasised adherence to the Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982), the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ), and the ASEAN Outlook on a Free and Open Indo Pacific (AOIP). The principles stated in the outcome are central to ASEAN’s engagement with external partners and should not be seen as competing objectives. To achieve the principles, the South China Sea must be stable.

7. Crisis Management Mechanism

The sea and airspace above have become increasingly challenging as the nations involved have prioritised their interests over the common desire of regional and international communities keen to avoid adverse situations. Undoubtedly, the South China Sea has been a place where freedom of navigation for military purposes is widely exercised. It is also space where China exercises its increased presence and maneuvers of warships cruising in the disputed area or flying over the airspace, challenging the freedom of passage guaranteed by UNCLOS and customary international law. As a result of these actions, the level of insecurity in several states has increased, and the probability of conflict at sea is high.

A military confrontation in the Asia Pacific is not on the cards; however, there is consensus that constant conflicts between militaries could lead to conventional war. The major concerns are the Korean Peninsula, the status of the Taiwan Strait concerning China and Taiwan and the US and overlapping maritime disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. All the above involve China and her increasing interests on the maritime front. The question is what action China may take if others don’t play by its rules. Should there be a significant conflict in Asia, there is a high probability that the great powers would be drawn in specifically the United States, which would impact regional security.

As such, it is timely that the United States and China agree to set up a crisis management mechanism in the South China Sea. The crisis management mechanism should aim at building up emergency responses as effectively as possible in terms of:

  1. Reporting and alerting
  2. Leadership and coordination
  3. Escalation and de-escalation
  4. Information management


The maritime situation in the Indo Pacific, including in the South China Sea and the dynamics are so fragile, requiring crisis management. Countries in the region and outside would want to avoid conflict as a war between maritime powers in Asia will have a devastating impact. In that sense, Confidence Building Measures (CBM) and Preventive Diplomacy (PD) are more desirable actions than preparing for crisis management. However, recent developments in the South China Sea point out that China and the United States should focus on risk-reduction measures more than any other parties in the South China Sea. Therefore, it is crucial for think-tank policy planners to engage, connect and rationalise the challenges in overlapping in Asia and Indo-Pacific region. The main priority is to create a crisis management mechanism to reduce the possibility of conflict in the Asia maritime domain.

Sumathy Permal은 말레이시아 해양정책연구소의 선임연구위원이자, 해양안보∙외교 및 연안∙해양 환경 연구실장이다. 전문분야는 인도태평양 지역의 해양안보, 그리고 아시아태평양의 지정학∙지전략 이슈이며, 말레이시아, 영국, 호주, 일본, 미국 등에서 활발하게 연구활동을 하는 중이다.

  • The author’s opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and does not reflect the view of KIMS.

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