China’s Actions in South and East China Seas: Implications for U.S. Interests—Background and Issues for Congress

China’s actions in recent years in the South China Sea (SCS)—particularly its island-building and base-construction activities at sites that it occupies in the Spratly Islands—have heightened concerns among U.S. observers that China is rapidly gaining effective control of the SCS, an area of strategic, political, and economic importance to the United States and its allies and partners, particularly those in the Indo-Pacific region. U.S. Navy Admiral Philip Davidson, in his responses to advance policy questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee for an April 17, 2018, hearing to consider his nomination to become Commander, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), stated that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”

Chinese control of the SCS—and, more generally, Chinese domination of China’s near-seas region, meaning the SCS, the East China Sea (ECS), and the Yellow Sea—could substantially affect U.S. strategic, political, and economic interests in the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere. China is a party to multiple territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS, including, in particular, disputes with multiple neighboring countries over the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and Scarborough Shoal in the SCS, and with Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the ECS. Up through 2014, U.S. concern over these disputes centered more on their potential for causing tension, incidents, and a risk of conflict between China and its neighbors in the region, including U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines and emerging partner states such as Vietnam. While that concern remains, particularly regarding the potential for a conflict between China and Japan involving the Senkaku Islands, U.S. concern since 2014 (i.e., since China’s island-building activities in the Spratly Islands were first publicly reported) has shifted increasingly to how China’s strengthening position in the SCS may be affecting the risk of a U.S.-China crisis or conflict in the SCS and the broader U.S.-Chinese strategic competition.

In addition to territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS, China is involved in a dispute, particularly with the United States, over whether China has a right under international law to regulate the activities of foreign military forces operating within China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The position of the United States and most other countries is that while international law gives coastal states the right to regulate economic activities (such as fishing and oil exploration) within their EEZs, it does not give coastal states the right to regulate foreign military activities in the parts of their EEZs beyond their 12-nautical-mile territorial waters. The position of China and some other countries (i.e., a minority group among the world’s nations) is that UNCLOS gives coastal states the right to regulate not only economic activities, but also foreign military activities, in their EEZs.

The dispute appears to be at the heart of multiple incidents between Chinese and U.S. ships and aircraft in international waters and airspace since 2001, and has potential implications not only for China’s EEZs, but for U.S. naval operations in EEZs globally, and for international law of the sea. A key issue for Congress is how the United States should respond to China’s actions in the SCS and ECS—particularly its island-building and base-construction activities in the Spratly Islands—and to China’s strengthening position in the SCS. A key oversight question for Congress is whether the Trump Administration has an appropriate strategy—and an appropriate amount of resources for implementing that strategy—for countering China’s “salami-slicing” strategy or gray zone operations for gradually strengthening its position in the SCS, for imposing costs on China for its actions in the SCS and ECS, and for defending and promoting U.S. interests in the region.