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Total Competition: China’s Challenge in the South China Sea

Total Competition: China’s Challenge in the South China Sea

Patrick M. Cronin & Ryan Neuhard

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.1 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.

Read the full report in CNAS

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