The South China Sea – welcome to the most disputed waters on the planet

The UK Carrier Strike group will set sail in May 2021 for a 5 or 6-month deployment. It has not been finally confirmed by government as yet but it seems likely the ships will operate for some of the time in the South China Sea. In this 2-part article, we look at the current situation in the region and examine some of the arguments for and against British re-engagement in the Far East


Flushed with economic success, to some extent, it is not unreasonable for the world’s most populous country to assert itself as a superpower. One of the defining questions of the 21st century is whether this rising power will accept the existing global system of regulation and behavioural norms. If China decides simply to use its new strength to act in entirely its own interest and ignore the established rules, then major conflict may be inevitable. For the majority of nations, the question is whether to appease and accept Chinese demands, which may bring at least temporary economic or financial benefits or take a stand to maintain existing order before it is too late.

China is a very old civilisation that, until the industrial revolution, was more advanced than the Western powers, historically self-sufficient having limited contact with the rest of the world. The Opium Wars of the early 19th Century are a particularly shameful episode in Britain’s past. Using superior military strength and technology, the Opium trade and other concessions were imposed on China by force. Humiliation by external powers, including appalling Japanese atrocities in the 20th Century, has shaped China’s view of the world.

With some similarities to the old British Empire model, the vast 21st century Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has seen the establishment of a series of infrastructure and trade projects that span Asia the Middle East and Africa. At first appearance, this may appear just an economic network but the BRI also has a military purpose – to provide ports from which China can use maritime power to dominate large parts of the globe.

When the COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, the first doctor to warn of the threat was imprisoned and the government delayed informing the rest of the world. Being at least partly responsible for a pandemic that has killed thousands and devastated the global economy has not been good for already-strained international relations. Greater international scrutiny is falling on the large-scale human rights abuses of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Over a million Uighur Muslims from the Xinjiang region have been detained in concentration camps, prisons, and forced labour factories. (The 60 million practising Christians in China have been subject to routine persecution for years).

The crackdown on democracy protesters in Hong Kong and the bullying of its neighbours is also raising tensions. In just one recently uncovered example, a large fleet of at least 800 Chinese vessels has been fishing illegally in North Korean waters in breach of UN Sanctions. The waters are being plundered of stocks of squid and desperate North Korean fishermen are dying, forced to venture fatally distant from shore and the inadequate boats containing their corpses are washing up in Japan.


The South China Sea (SCS) a major potential flashpoint for future conflict, with six nations making complex and competing for claims over a series of islands and overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). The SCS competition is one of the most extreme examples of growing global tensions around the exploitation of the oceans as populations expand with an insatiable demand for resources. The SCS is a tempting prize, rich in oil, minerals and fishing grounds. Chinese estimates suggest there are 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that could be extracted. Control over these waters also amounts to enormous strategic power because nearly a third of world’s maritime trade, estimated at around £3.8 trillion per year, is carried on ships passing through the SCS.

Under the normal United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) every nation has the right to claim an EEZ out to 200 miles from its coast. Where the EEZ overlaps with another nation, a maritime boundary that divides the territory in an equitable manner is usually agreed. The EEZ gives the right for that nation to extract mineral and natural resources but it does not have sovereignty over the waters, which are open to all shipping. Only the waters that extend 12 miles from an inhabited coast are sovereign territorial waters.

Using a historical document with little validity, China has used its so-called ‘nine-dash line’ to claim ownership of an area which encircles almost 90% of the entire SCS extending up to 1,200 miles from the Chinese mainland. The nine-dash line has more recently been supplemented with another to form a ‘ten-dash line’ to include Taiwan and its waters. (The possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan poses another threat to peace). If the UK was to invent an equivalent to encompass approximately the same sea area as claimed by China, it would be like deciding to assume ownership of the North Sea and the entire Baltic Sea as far as St Petersburg. We would then inform Sweden, Norway Finland, Russia, the Baltic states, Poland, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Belgium and France that they no longer had any rights to their EEZ.

In a ruling ignored by the Chinese, the international Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague unanimously rejected the claims as unlawful in 2016. Scattered across the SCS are many inhabited islands and reefs of which China has taken as their own. Even if China owned the rocks, because were uninhabited, they would come with no associated territorial waters or EEZ. To complicate matters, in the last decade China has been reclaiming land around strategic islands and reefs and constructing ports, air bases, radar installations and barracks. At what must be enormous expense and inflicting considerable environmental damage, this foothold allows China to claim they are now ‘inhabited’.

China already has a legal EEZ of 877,019 km2 but claims a total of 3,000,000 Km2. Further claims over islands in the East China Sea are putting it in direct conflict with its oldest rival, Japan. The Trump administration is pursuing a tough stance with China and nations in Asia are increasingly polarised. Some are aligning with China while others are joining ‘the quad’ which includes the US, Japan India and Australia in an alliance specifically to contain China. The UK has long-established ties with these 4 nations and is committed to the upholding of the ‘rules-based-order’ which inevitably put it at odds with the world’s newest superpower.

Winning the global power competition

The Chinese military has grown rapidly with modern equipment, much of which is derived from a vast programme of cyber-theft, reverse-engineering or purchasing the best foreign technology. It is not that the Chinese are incapable of innovation, just that if you are in a hurry to catch up and overtake your rivals it is quicker and easier to steal or buy their work, avoiding expensive research costs and the painful lessons that are often inherent in the innovation process. There is widespread evidence that lax or negligent IT practices across the Western world have enabled Chinese hackers to access details of advanced technologies, including cutting edge military programmes. It is difficult to quantify how far Chinese intelligence may also have penetrated and compromised operational capabilities. The recent decision by the UK to join the US, Australia and other democracies in banning Huawei from their telecoms architecture is something of a turning point for nations waking up to this threat.

Naval strength cannot just be assessed by numbers but approximately 70% of the PLANs vessels are considered modern or very modern and today includes 2 aircraft carriers, 36 destroyers, 52 frigates, 250 corvettes and 74 submarines. The third Chinese aircraft carrier is under construction and is estimated to be 85,000 tonnes and their first to feature CATOBAR / EMALS design. To the particular concern of Taiwan, the PLAN is also building up its amphibious forces with the commissioning of at least two 40,000-tonne Type 075 LHDs and eight 29,000-tonne Type 071 LPDs for its 35,000-strong marine corps.

Able to throw huge manpower and financial resources at any project, China’s totalitarian state can build up its military largely free from the constraints of public scrutiny, health & safety, workers rights or the effects of ‘pork barrel’ politics which slow democratic nations efforts. Even if Chinese defence spending figures were reliable, it makes comparisons with Western nations meaningless as they clearly get far more for the same money. Efficient Chinese shipyards are churning out modern warships for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) at a rate which is both impressive and unmatchable.

While the US Navy is spread across the globe, for now at least, China keeps most of its naval forces closer to home with an overwhelming concentration of available firepower in the SCS. China has also built the largest Coastguard fleet in the world, now numbering over 1,000 vessels of various sizes. Some are heavily armed and it this quasi-militia, rather than the PLAN itself, that have been involved in deadly confrontations with fishermen for neighbouring nations in disputed waters.

Apart from aircraft carriers, the PLAN has eclipsed the US Navy in major surface combatant numbers. In the four years between 2014 and 2018, China commissioned more naval vessels of all kinds that the total number of ships in navies of Germany, India, Spain, and the United Kingdom combined. 18 warships ere commissioned by China in 2016 and 14 more followed in 2017. The US Navy built just 5 ships in 2016 and 8 ships in 2017. Assuming the current rate of growth continues, China will have around 425 naval combatants by 2030. This is just the naval picture but similar expansion and modernisation of their airforce is underway and of course, the Chinese Army is the largest in the world numbering over 2 million. China also has the most vibrant and diverse missile development programme in the world. This includes a weapon for every occasion including a suite of nuclear and conventional ballistic, cruise and hypersonic missiles designed for a variety of missions, including ship-killing in the SCS and Pacific.

Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands in the centre of the SCS. In 2014 the Chinese began land-reclamation and militarization of the reef, constructing a base with runways, naval support facilities, radars and air defence systems. This is one of several such ‘unsinkable aircraft carriers’ they have built in the SCS that will further put at risk any naval force that should enter the area, even before taking into account the threat from the Chinese navy. (Image: Duan Dang)

Western powers and the Japanese are generally acknowledged to be superior to the Chinese in the undersea domain but China has begun construction of an SCS ‘underwater great wall’ similar to the SOSUS system developed the US to detect Soviet submarines in the Cold War. A series of undersea hydrophones are being laid on the sea bed connected by optic fibre cables to their militarized islands and a central monitoring facility in Shanghai. This sensor network could nullify any attempt by Western submarines to operate in the area without detection. It has also been discovered that China is laying sensors further out into the Pacific hoping to detect submarine activity around Guam and Japan.

It is clear that much of the SCS can already be regarded as a stronghold protected by a formidable missile-based anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) bubble and large surface fleet. If there is an obvious Chinese military weakness, it would be the lack of combat experience, particularly within its navy. Such a dramatic expansion means the force must be very short of experienced personnel and promotion must be very rapid for officers in the PLAN.

Long-range missiles are only as good as the ISR assets that provide targeting information and how effective the kill-chain may be is debatable. It is probable that when matched up one-for-one, Chinese weapons are still marginally inferior to the latest Western equivalents. For example, the F-35 almost certainly outclasses anything that the Chinese have, but sheer weight of numbers and concentration of force would likely see China dominate almost any opponent during any potential military clash in the SCS.

USS McCampbell, USNS Henry J Kaiser and HMS Argyll conduct replenishment during operations in the South China Sea, Jan 2019.

In the last two years or so there has been an increase in Royal Navy vessels sent to the Pacific and passing through the South China sea. The deployments have been signalled in advance but the RN has been very tight-lipped about interactions with the PLAN during these voyages. HMS Sutherland conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in March 2018 although details of where she sailed are unknown. HMS Albion sailed within 12 miles of Chinese-claimed territories in the Paracel islands in August 2018. Unconfirmed reports suggest a Chinese warship shadowed Albion, coming as close 200 metres, while Chinese jets flew low over the ship. HMS Argyll operated in the SCS with US and Japanese ships in Jan 2019 and HMS Montrose followed shortly after with a transit of the SCS in February 2019.

The deployment of single vessels for short periods does little to change the military balance in the area but FONOPS effectively signal the intention to uphold international law. Sending the UK Carrier Strike Group into the SCS would be a much bigger statement, the implications of which we will consider in the next article.