January 08, 2020

Total Competition

China’s Challenge in the South China Sea

Introduction: An Unstoppable Force?

China’s bid for ascendancy remains anchored in the South China Sea and surrounding Southeast Asian countries. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) deems it economically and militarily vital to dominate the resources and sea lines of communication of a body of water twice the size of Alaska. Achieving this goal requires tethering neighboring countries into Beijing’s ambit while making the existing ruleset more favorable to China and displacing the dominant power behind the existing regional order. Some may find comfort in describing the scenario underway as a return to a “China-centered” rather than “Sino-centric” region. However, an authoritarian China’s coercive attempts to wield hegemonic control of the South China Sea threatens the sovereignty of Southeast Asian states and international freedom of the seas, both of which are of fundamental national interest to the United States. Yet the South China Sea and Southeast remain the least defended and most bountiful region susceptible to Chinese predations and inducements.

The CCP leadership is obsessed with the idea that outside forces intend to contain China’s development, foment internal unrest, and prevent it from retaking what it considers to be its rightful place center stage in regional and global affairs. In partial response to deep-seated insecurities and renewed great-power ambitions, Xi Jinping and the CCP are in the process of attempting to exercise control over the entire nine-dash line claim covering the vast majority of the South China Sea and to turn Southeast Asia into a latter-day tributary system. CCP propaganda casts China’s quest for control over maritime Asia as an inexorable outcome of China’s rise and America’s decline. Curiously, the only government speaking seriously about “stopping” China is Beijing, suggesting that its policies are influenced more by subjective internal fears than by objective external realities. China wants nothing to stop it from consolidating its maximalist historic claims, from denying the United States the ability to intervene in regional conflicts, and from dismantling America’s postwar alliance system.

Beijing is engaging in a long-term assault on the prevailing order in the South China Sea.

As a consequence of China’s fear and ambition, Beijing is engaging in a long-term assault on the prevailing order in the South China Sea. Daily, the CCP employs multiple instruments of national power to achieve its ends: diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and psychological. A diverse toolkit is employed by an array of regular and irregular forces; this preys upon the strategic vulnerabilities of other states while masking the fragilities of China. Because state-owned media organs churn out glossy narratives trumpeting benevolent intentions and a tenaciously unified message, even as Beijing gradually acquires control of the South China Sea, it is necessary to scrutinize China’s actions and words in the round. Local claimant states—the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei—feel the brunt of Beijing’s slow-motion hegemony, and the strategic autonomy of every Southeast Asian country is at risk. Southeast Asian governments are unwilling to express the problem in such stark terms, but the concern is real nevertheless. Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng characterized the dilemma facing smaller regional powers as follows: “The further the U.S. and China pull apart, the harder it [will] be for all countries to keep to [a] principled and neutral position.” Ng diplomatically pleads with both major powers to make compromises. But from the view of the United States, China’s malign behavior is neither accept-able nor unstoppable. For the sake of preserving the sovereignty of neighboring maritime states, Southeast Asians should hope the Washington view will prevail. As a great power, the United States incurs an obligation to play a leading role in preserving a free and open order. To do so, however, it is crucial to understand the pattern of Beijing’s behavior that threatens to undermine that order.

This report argues that China is waging total competition in the South China Sea. Beijing’s campaign of total competition, like George Kennan’s concept of “political warfare,” involves the use of all tools at the state’s disposal short of war. Total competition differs from ordinary competition in its virtually unrestricted execution. It includes illegitimate and destabilizing methods that are ordinarily avoided by benign competitors. China’s total competition or political warfare campaign has five essential pillars: economic power, information dominance, maritime power, psychological warfare, and “lawfare.”

In short, China now appears to be an unstoppable force in the South China Sea. Despite its apparent doubts, China would like for the world to think that it will inevitably dominate the region. If China’s trends are linear—and there are compelling reasons to question the likelihood of that trajectory—the country can be expected to continue marginalizing U.S. regional power. By 2035, before the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) centennial that marks the realization of the “Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation,” China could:

  • Determine the distribution of all the resources within the nine-dash line area
  • Secure shipping lanes, supply chains, and logistics hubs
  • Control regional communications and achieve information dominance
  • Become the rule-maker and legally transform international waters into internal seas
  • Hasten the U.S. military withdrawal from the region

Certainly, the United States appears to be losing the immediate competition over strategic influence. It does not help that the United States takes some actions far afield to counter the perception that it is retreating to a more isolationist posture. However, in the South China Sea, the United States is routinizing and expanding freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in both frequency and complexity. It is also, both on its own and in coordination with allies, augmenting programs aimed at building local maritime domain awareness and partner naval and coast guard capacity. Moreover, the United States is joining others in making transparent China’s opaque investments under the rubric of the Belt and Road. For instance, the United States, Japan, and Australia have launched the Blue Dot Network to provide a good-housekeeping seal of approval on major infrastructure development projects. Many promises of finance and development are slow to materialize, lack accountability, bring questionable returns on investment for the recipient country, and can lead to long-term hazards such as indebtedness. An international assessment can make China’s investments more transparent and hold them to a higher standard. But despite these and other U.S. initiatives, Beijing appears well on track to further militarize the South China Sea and expand its influence throughout Southeast Asia.

China seems poised to realize its excessive territorial claims and unilateral attempts to erect an order based on Chinese power, rather than on the rule of law and regional norms. At the same time, China increasingly seeks to flip the script, turning criticisms of its behavior into the accusation that the United States is the principal rule-breaker and leading destabilizing force in the region. “We will not relinquish a single inch of territory passed down from our forefathers,” declares Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. Although China seems to miss the point that no one owns the oceans, General Wei casts China’s right in response to perceived threats, including “big stick diplomacy” and “long-arm jurisdiction.” An assertive China, issuing a singular message, reinforces the notion of a nation ready to gain further control of the region at whatever cost. It is thus understandable that U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Philip Davidson testified in May 2018: “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”

China increasingly seeks to flip the script, turning criticisms of its behavior into the accusation that the United States is the principal rule-breaker and leading destabilizing force in the region.

Seventy years prior to Admiral Davidson’s judgment on China winning control in all scenarios short of war, George F. Kennan, then Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department, coined the term “political warfare” to refer to “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.” While no phrase can fully capture the complexity of Beijing’s approach to the South China Sea—and “warfare” suggests physical violence—describing it as “political warfare” aptly captures China’s total competition campaign to win without fighting. The expression also usefully encompasses a diverse array of policy instruments being employed. It remains relevant today, but this report builds on recent scholarship to make the case that “total competition” more accurately describes China’s approach.

To respond to China’s campaign, the United States needs to implement a two-pronged strategy. The first must attack China’s strategy while deterring escalation and helping democratic societies to become more competitive and resilient. The second prong should involve an appealing, positive vision of engagement with Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region to strengthen bonds of cooperation with the United States and one another. Importantly, pursuing only a single prong is likely to fail. The United States requires both a firm policy for China and an attractive—and not bullying—policy for Southeast Asia.

Only by widening horizons to consider China’s broader strategy, and not singularly fixating on the South China Sea, can the United States and like-minded countries have a better chance of constraining malign behavior in Southeast Asia. Even then, constraining malign behavior is only half of the equation, for it is the sum of positive activities of the United States and its allies and partners that can provide the surest means of offsetting any one country’s attempts to dominate the region. The United States must work on improving its understanding of Southeast Asia’s interests. As this report argues, “winning” this total competition necessitates avoiding the hypothetical 2035 scenario outlined earlier, which will ensure that no single state enjoys absolute control over the South China Sea. It necessitates preserving the strategic autonomy of Southeast Asian countries and deepening economic, diplomatic, cultural, and security ties with regional actors. In short, to generate the most significant beneficial impact, the United States needs a multidimensional strategy to widen the strategic room for maneuver vis-à-vis China and narrow the scope of serious and sustained engagement in parts of Southeast Asia. But to explain this general recommendation and then add more specificity, it is first essential to put into context China’s strategy and the South China Sea.

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  1. This is the view of Allan Gyngell, former Director-General of the Australian Office of National Assessments, who was using the phrases of Professor Nick Bisley. See Allan Gyngell, “How to Train Your Dragon,” The Australian, October 11, 2019.
  2. The military uses the acronym DIME (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic) to refer to the four major instruments of national power that should be considered in devising strategy. See Strategy, Joint Doctrine Note 1-18 (Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, April 25, 2018), https://fas.org/irp/doddir/dod/jdn1_18.pdf.
  3. Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen, speaking at the Xiangshan Forum, October 22, 2019. See Danson Cheong, “Critical for Small Countries that U.S., China Find Common Ground: Ng Eng Hen,” Straits Times, October 22, 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/us-and-china-must-find-common-ground-ng-eng-hen.
  4. Xi Jinping, “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderate Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era,” speech delivered to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 18, 2017, Xinhua News Agency, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/special/2017-11/03/c_136725942.htm.
  5. One does not have to agree with the claim of U.S. isolationism to see the impact of perceived American retreat as a result of the decision to pull back from Syria, leaving Kurdish partners to fend for themselves. See “Donald Trump’s Betrayal of the Kurds Is a Blow to America’s Credibility,” The Economist, October 17, 2019.
  6. For example, see Randall G. Schriver, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, Statement to the 116th Congress Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, March 27, 2019, https://armedservices.house.gov/_cache/files/e/f/effc8d86-1611-49c7-9bea-53c7a19b75fe/F92E6F87912814548BF502659CD16299.asd-schriver---opening-statement---03-25-2019---final.pdf.
  7. Regalado, “U.S. ‘Late’ in Pushing Blue Dot to Counter China’s Belt and Road,” Nikkei Asian Review, November 22, 2019, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/US-late-in-pushing-Blue-Dot-to-counter-China-s-Belt-and-Road.
  8. For instance, see Zhang Zhihao, “Defense Minister Emphasizes National Interests in Address,” China Daily, October 21, 2019, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201910/21/WS5dad5f12a310cf3e35571b58.html.
  9. Zhang Zhihao, “Defense Minister Emphasizes National Interests in Address.”
  10. Hannah Beech, “China’s Sea Control Is a Done Deal ‘Short of War with the U.S.,” The New York Times, September 20, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/20/world/asia/south-china-sea-navy.html.
  11. George F. Kennan, “The Inauguration of Organized Political Warfare” (redacted version), U.S. Department of State, declassified top secret memo dated April 30, 1948 (Wilson Center Digital Archive, International History Declassified), https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/114320.pdf?v=941dc9ee5c6e51333ea9ebbbc9104e8c.
  12. Stanford Professor Donald Emmerson has called for the idea of “no sole control” of the South China Sea; see Donald K. Emmerson, “‘No Sole Control’ in the South China Sea?” Asia Policy, 25 no. 4, October 2018, 20-189, 67-73, Project Muse, doi:10.1353/asp.2018.0064.


  • Patrick M. Cronin

    Former Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Patrick M. Cronin is a former Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, he was the ...

  • Ryan Neuhard

    Research Associate, Hudson Institute

    Ryan Neuhard is a Research Associate with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Hudson Institute. His research focuses on security issues related to China and to the Korean...

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