China’s Technological and Strategic Innovations in the South China Sea

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 3, March 2019 

By Anders Corr, Ph.D.


A PLA Navy fleet including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, vessels and fighter jets take part in a drill in April 2018 in the South China Sea. Photo: VCG/Getty Images

This article is a slight revision of a talk given on March 13, 2019, in New York City.

Thanks very much for the invitation to speak today, and to all the members of the audience. I want to thank my good friend US Navy Captain James Fanell, who was Director of Intelligence for the US Pacific Fleet. He is not here, but he has been a mentor on the issues I’m covering, and assisted with comments to this presentation.

The full presentation is a combination of material from a book I edited that was published last year by the U.S. Naval Institute Press with the title – Great Powers, Grand Strategies: the New Game in the SCS, and my next book, on the strategy of brinkmanship.  This presentation, however, will focus on how China is innovating in the South China Sea on technological and strategic levels.

In a short year since the book was published, the South China Sea conflict has heated up. On March 4 and March 7, 2019, USPACOM, which is the Asian equivalent of CENTCOM and for which I used to work, sent nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over the SCS, including one flight revealed today. USPACOM also recently revealed that China’s military activity in the SCS rose over the past year. China occupied a sand bar near the Philippines island of Pagasa, in the Philippine exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, and Chinese boats purposefully rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat in the Paracel Islands of the north west SCS, islands that both China and Vietnam claim.

An Innovation Matrix: Before, After, and Counters

It is useful to think about innovation in terms of a simple matrix, with innovations as rows, and columns as before (ex ante) and after (ex poste) conditions. The final column is possible counter-innovations or strategies, typically by the US. This column seeks to sweep the parameter space of potential US counter-strategies — they are not all recommended, but they do show the extraordinary risks that China is subjecting itself to by seeking to change the status quo in the South China Sea through its dangerous new strategies and technical innovations.

Two Phases of Effects

Per military planning methods, the ex poste column is further divided into phases, more specifically, Phase 0 and Phase 1 of a potential war.

We are currently and officially in Phase 0 of a potential hot war in the Western Pacific. Phase 0 is before the shooting starts, but at a heightened state of tension. In Phase 0, militaries seek to improve capabilities should a hot war start. Risk-acceptant revisionist countries like China seek to make faits accomplis, or change facts on the ground in their favor. Risk-averse or status quo countries seek to defend the status quo. Brinkmanship is used by both types of country to obtain their Phase 0 goals.

I define Phase 1 of the conflict as when the shooting starts. Conflicts can escalate technologically, for example from conventional to nuclear war, and in terms of area, for example from a localized conventional war in the South China Sea to a regional conventional war in all of Asia. It is possible to simultaneously be in Phase 1 of a conventional war, and Phase 0 of a nuclear war, or Phase 1 of a South China Sea war, and Phase 0 of a generalized Asian war.

For purposes of simplicity, my definition of Phase 1 is slightly different than the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) definitions, in which “normal peacetime” is not designated as a phase, tensions above normal peacetime are Phase 0, imminent conflict with little notice is Phase 1, combat is Phase 2, immediate post-conflict resolution and reconstruction is Phase 3, and long-term stability work is Phase 4. My Phase 0 combines DoD Phases 0 and 1, and my phase 1 is equivalent to DoD Phase 2. I don’t cover DoD phases 3 and 4 in this paper.

Military commanders typically seek to limit technological and area expansion of war, but this is difficult when technology advantages a first strike, which is the world we live in today. Some of the technological advancements below make this first strike advantage, also known as offense dominance, even more so. The South China Sea in ten years will be increasingly unstable and difficult for the U.S. military as China leads an arms race in for example, naval building, artificial island building, hypersonic missiles, and influence operations. The U.S. response and preparedness has thus far been inadequate, and what we develop technologically is rapidly stolen by China. Time is on China’s side in the South China Sea, if current trends continue.

Technological Innovation

The first half of this short talk is on technological innovations in the South China Sea, the ex ante environment, ex poste environment, and counter-innovations and strategies available to the U.S. Please see the Table 1, “Innovation and Counter-Innovation in the South China Sea” as a guide to the rest of the talk.

Table 1: Technological Innovation and Counter-Innovation in the South China Sea.

InnovationEx Ante EnvironmentEx Poste EnvironmentCounter-Innovation/Strategy
Artificial Islands in SCS (Stationary aircraft carriers)Joint-use fishing shoals/Naval shipsPhase 0: Pressure on shipping, public outrage, likely bribery of country leadership Phase 1: Easy targets, escalationIncrease public information and legal campaigns
Nuclear-tipped hypersonic carrier-killer missilesCarrier strike groupsPhase 0: Hypersonic shotguns, build submarines not carriersPhase 1: Easy targets, massive retaliationRail guns: use of magnetized shotgun shot
Containerized missiles on Russian and Chinese-flagged merchant marineDivision between merchant marine and navyPhase 0: Weapon leaks to terrorists, pressure on USN operations (Chinese layered defense, attempts at denial of access)Phase 1: Increased targeting of civilian vessels, containerized ships are easy targetsEconomic and port sanctions on ships that participate
Maritime Militia (up to 150,000 vessels used to intimidate claimant militaries and for island-swarming, reinforced steel hulls, Beidou navigation, subsidized fuel, international transponders off)Unarmored, Unsubsidized fishing fleetsPhase 0: Chinese overfishing, claimant underfishing, arms race – Coast Guard/Navy, military tensionPhase 1: Up to 150,000 ships capable of being armed with containerized missiles Economic and port sanctions on ships that participate

Artificial Islands

China’s artificial island strategy in the South China Sea took off this decade, with multiple spindly weather stations on a few islands transformed over a few years into massive naval and air bases through dredging the sea bottom with underwater crushers and vacuums. The material unearthed was then placed atop existing rocks and shoals in the South China Sea to create enough new area to put air bases capable of hosting China’s largest intercontinental bombers, as well as docks and undersea bastions large enough for multiple aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. The islands have anti-aircraft guns and Long March missiles capable of launching satellites or intermediate-range nuclear missiles, and could soon or already host intermediate-range nuclear missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles.

These shoals and rocks were thus militarized, against the explicit promises of China, into “stationary aircraft carriers” that currently in Phase 0, put pressure on US and allied shipping, naval transits, and air operations.  China uses them for layered defense and anti-access/area denial operations, known by the acronym A2/AD. The US Navy and Air Force must take these Chinese fortifications seriously as they transit the area, and they provide a jumping off point for Chinese intercontinental bombers to extend their range to places like Australia and Guam, which host U.S. forces.

In Phase 1 of a South China Sea war, they would become easy targets for U.S. cruise and intercontinental missiles, which could lead to escalation geographically or to nuclear levels, including the use of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons.

Current counter-strategies that the U.S. is following are first, enhanced public information campaigns and declassification of information about the artificial islands, and second, encouragement of international legal strategies, for example the Philippines vs. China arbitration at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague,  that handed a victory to the Philippines in July 2016. China ignored the finding and several days later released photos of an H-6K nuclear capable bomber flying over Scarborough Shoal, which is within the Philippine EEZ.

Hypersonic carrier-killer missiles

Another important innovation that will have a major effect on the South China Sea is Chinese and Russian adoption of hypersonic missile technology. Previously slower reentry vehicles could be shot down by defensive missiles on US battleships and cruisers that accompany aircraft carriers. China’s latest anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) and reentry vehicles on intercontinental missiles have the capability to outrange, evade and overwhelm all US countermeasures other than air-launched ASCM, especially when launched en masse. This puts US carriers at risk, especially the closer they operate to China. US destroyers and cruisers are outgunned unless accompanied by submarines or carrier-launched air cover.

In Phase 0, we are seeing a shift from carrier building and continued operations, to more and smaller ships, including submarines that can escape detection and vulnerability to ASCM and intercontinental missiles. New technologies like rail guns, including with magnetic shotgun shot, are being developed by both the US and Chinese navies.

In Phase 1, a Chinese strike on even a single aircraft carrier would likely lead to 5,000 deaths and a massive nuclear first strike on all Chinese military assets, with the expectation of a counter-strike of many fewer nuclear weapons on U.S. military assets (of lesser degree, because a US first strike would destroy most Chinese nuclear forces). A Chinese admiral several months ago mooted the idea of sinking two US carriers, which would cause 10,000 deaths.

Maritime Militia and Containerized Missiles

The US, China, Russia and Israel have begun placing missiles in standard containerized cargo, meaning that missiles can be loaded and fired from normal civilian cargo ships, and potentially from the larger of the 150,000 maritime militia vessels. This increases the threat to U.S. Navy vessels operating in the South China Sea during Phase 0. In Phase 1, China’s civilian fishing and cargo fleet could be targeted in case they carry hidden containerized missiles.

China’s maritime militia is a grey zone operation between civilian and military capabilities. China’s fishing fleet has been expanded, and 150,000 Chinese vessels are now part of the militia. These ships have reinforced steel hulls for ramming, the Beidou navigation system (independent from GPS), switched off international location transponders, and subsidized fuel. They are used for island swarming tactics, including in the South and East China Seas, and could be used as part of a covert or plausible-deniability strategy connected to an island takeover (as the Russians did on Crimea). Vietnam also reportedly has a much smaller maritime militia started in 2009, including with firearms and night vision capabilities.

A strategy that the US could use against China’s maritime militia and cargo ships that carry or have carried containerized missiles, would be targeted economic sanctions on parent companies, along with denial of port access. This would severely limit not only the cargo shipping companies, which rely on international port access, but also China’s fishing fleet, which operate as far as Africa and South America. They are likely able to do so on subsidized fuel and only through frequent violations of EEZs. Chinese fishing boats, for example, were fired upon in March 2019 by the Argentine Coast Guard, in 2017 by the South Koreans, and in 2016 by the Indonesians.

Strategic Innovation

China innovates on strategic as well as technological levels, including goal innovation to claim the entire South China Sea as territory, brinkmanship against the US and claimant countries, and incrementalist faits accomplis designed to make major gains over time but without provoking a defense.

Privatization of SCS as Chinese territorySCS as commons fairly divided — UNCLOS; lack of protection for uninhabited islands and featuresPhase 0: Unresolved legal conflict, military tensions, appeasementPhase 1: Military conflictPublic opinion and international law campaigns
Brinkmanship against US Navy in SCSFreedom of navigation (FoN)Phase 0: Increased risk of miscalculation and escalationPhase 1: Escalation, denial of accessStay the course, defensive brinkmanship, roll back
Incrementalism – Scarborough, Pagasa, HD 981, “scientific” underwater explorationIslands nearest the Philippines and Vietnam’s EEZ oil fields were left to their respective countries, but not allowed to develop exclusivelyPhase 0: Increased Philippine-China and Vietnam-China tensions, public outrage, payoffs to leaders, brinkmanship, chance of escalationPhase 1: Easy targets, escalation, Chinese public outrageCounter-brinkmanship, public opinion campaigns, legal strategies, roll back

Privatization of the South China Sea

China is seeking to privatize the South China Sea as its own territory. The ancient history of the South China Sea is one of cosmopolitan fishing and trading communities that traversed the entire region and migrated throughout. Fishing conflicts increased as the fish catches decreased with overfishing in the 1960s. In the 1970s, the high price of oil and gas led to increased interest in the possibility of hydrocarbons under the South China Sea, with later Chinese hydrocarbon estimates maxing at $60 trillion USD (at an oil price of $100 USD per barrel). US estimates are a tenth of that, which gives China greater perceived incentives, compared to the US, to acquire the South China Sea. China also has fewer oil and gas reserves domestically compared to the US.

In the 1980s, negotiations for country exclusive economic zones, including for fish and oil, concluded with China signing onto the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) but with a caveat about historical claims. China has now used this caveat as an excuse to ignore its UNCLOS responsibilities, and in 2009, China sent its 9-dash line claim to every nation in the United Nations as a note verbale. This was a radical innovation for contemporaries, with such an extensive claim to a mare clausum unseen since the Romans from the first century BC to the 1st century AD claimed the Mediterranean, and the Spanish from the early 16th century to the late 18th century claimed the entire Pacific, including the South China Sea. Since the success of Dutch and British maritime empires in the 18th centuries, and the triumph of Grotius’ international law principle of mare liberum, or freedom of the seas, no country has had the audacity to claim as its own such a large international body of water. The South China Sea is the same size as India and double the size of the Mediterranean.

In Phase 0, China’s expansive claim to the South China Sea has led to the international legal case of the Philippines tried in the Hague, and military tensions. In Phase 1, the South China Sea conflict is part of a larger constellation of trade, territorial and military tensions that in a worst case scenario could lead the U.S. into a preemptive war against China or one of its allies, as typically predicted by academic theories of power transition dating back to Thucydides.

Counter-strategies that the U.S. are currently following include public opinion and international legal campaigns, as already mentioned.

Brinkmanship and Incrementalism

China has increased its use of brinkmanship in the South China Sea, including the frequent sinking of Vietnamese fishing vessels that stray into the Paracel islands of the northwest, but also in the purposeful near collision of a Chinese destroyer with a US Arleigh Burke class destroyer in 2018. Three other destroyers in the past year, including two US destroyers, have collided with cargo ships. There have been unproven suspicions that this might have been caused by hacking, though investigations have turned up unprofessional and untrained crews on US navy ships.

China’s surface warfare brinkmanship is weakening the ability of US surface combattants to operate safely in the SCS. Each instance of successful Chinese brinkmanship, because totally unexpected by the US, is arguably a form of innovation, though of course naval brinkmanship has a long history, including in the Cold War, when submarines would bump against each other and pull “Crazy Ivans”, in which a submarine that suspects it is being followed doubles back on itself at full speed in a game of chicken.

Phase 0 brinkmanship could eventually lead to a miscalculation, sinking, and escalation into a purposeful exchange of fire. That might in turn lead to escalation into Phase 1 conventional war in which brinkmanship rises to a new Phase 0 nuclear level.

The counter-strategy against brinkmanship is unfortunately risky, in that it includes US brinkmanship (for example, ongoing frequent naval transits near Chinese islands) or even preemptive war against China or a Chinese ally like North Korea, if time is on China’s side (which it is).  The various conflicts with China are linked, so one cannot rule out a strike in one theater of war, such as North Korea, in response to an action in a different theater, for example the South China Sea.

This makes China’s continued incrementalism — for example its occupation of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and a shoal near Pagasa (Philippines) in March 2019, particularly dangerous. But it is how Beijing increases nationalistic sentiment, maintains domestic control, and makes gains over time, hoping not to provoke a defensive reaction. It waits for opportunities of weak U.S. government to takeover vacant territory, even though that territory has been claimed by other countries and those claims validated by international law.

This should lead to the US counter-strategy of drawing red lines, which would obligate a military response or loss of face if China continues to take over new territory in an incremental fashion. Unfortunately, the red line strategy is often seen as too risky by U.S. administrations, which prefer strategic ambiguity. That is insufficient to deter China, however, and therefore invites continued Chinese incrementalism.


For the U.S. to win in the South China Sea requires a broader win against China on a host of economic, military, and diplomatic levels. The China-US conflict is an n-level game in which the balance of power and innovation, and the level of risk that each country is willing to endure, will determine outcomes. To beat China, the US will need to accept more risk, draw red lines, occupy vacant or contested space with military force, and stop technology loss to remain economically and militarily competitive. It will need to maximize soft power costs to China by increasing public information campaigns, including declassifying more information on what the Chinese are doing in the South China Sea, and encouraging international legal campaigns, for example a potential claim of $200 billion USD by my calculations for rent and damages to the Philippine EEZ. To beat China, the US may need to double the defense budget, which would require increased US taxes and cutting the cost of social service spending.  

With that, I would again like to thank all of you for your patience, and return the floor to the moderator.

Anders Corr is the publisher of the Journal of Political Risk and the editor of Great Powers, Grand Strategies: the New Game in the South China Sea (US Naval Institute Press, 2018). He holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and has worked for U.S. military intelligence as a civilian, including on China and Central Asia. The author thanks Capt. James Fanell (USN, Ret.) and Capt. Jim Newman (USN, Ret.) for comments and improvements to the original draft. JPR status: working paper.