The Malacca Strait, the South China Sea and the Sino-American Competition in the Indo-Pacific

Date01 August 2021
Published date01 August 2021
Subject MatterResearch Articles
The Malacca Strait,
the South China Sea
and the Sino-American
Competition in the
Paweł Paszak1
This article aims to highlight security dynamics of the US–China competition
in the Indo-Pacific associated with the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea
through the prism of Balance of Threat Theory. It is argued that the control
over strategic lines of communication is a significant factor in the process of
constructing threat perception of East and Southeast Asian states as they remain
heavily reliant on maritime transportation of commodities and energy resources.
The US navy is the major security provider in the maritime domain which makes
China vulnerable to a potential naval blockade. China faces a double dilemma as
the status quo is interpreted as potentially detrimental to its interests, but any
attempts to undermine it are likely to prompt Asian states to join US balancing
efforts. China’s geographical proximity, its rising military power and revisionist
tendencies make the US the more desirable security partner to the region.
Malacca, South China Sea, United States, China, India, Indo-Pacific
China’s sustained economic and military rise and intensifying strategic
competition with the US have become defining trends in international relations
both on the political and academic levels. Among many themes, China’s rising
naval capabilities have been a key feature of the debate as the maritime domain
constitutes the bloodstream of the world economy and a major platform for
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
8(2) 174–194, 2021
© The Author(s) 2021
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970211017494
War Studies Academy, Poland.
Corresponding author:
Paweł Paszak, War Studies Academy, Jachtowa 12, Braniewo 14-500, Poland.
Research Article
Paszak 175
projecting military power. The US dominant position in the Western Pacific ‘has
been, is, and will remain largely defined by sea power’ (Gampert, 2013, p. xi) or,
as Barry Posen puts it, defined by its unrivalled ‘command of commons’ (Posen,
2003, p. 8). The US is the only actor that can credibly deny access to sea lines of
communication. Fiona Cunningham identifies naval blockade as a relatively low-
risk option across the escalation ladder that might help the US achieve limited
political objectives, without resorting to nuclear threats (Cunningham, 2020).
For China acquiring naval power sufficient to challenge the US in the Western
Pacific is, therefore, an imperative not only for safeguarding its security but also
achieving regional hegemony. Due to these reasons, China’s naval modernisation
and strategy have attracted considerable attention in recent years (Brewster, 2018;
Lim, 2017; Lim, 2020; Nan, 2009; Sheldon-Duplaix, 2016; Yoshihara & Holmes,
2018). Li argued that China’s naval strategy and capabilities have been shifting
from the near-coast defence, near-seas active defence, to far-seas operations (Li,
2009, pp. 163–164). Similar conclusions were drawn by Sheldon-Duplaix who
emphasised that China has embarked on a build-up aimed at making China a “sea
power” mainly in the Indo-Pacific region to deter US intervention in Taiwan and
to protect its trade in the Indian Ocean (Sheldon-Duplaix, 2016, p. 51). Lim and
Brewster argue that the main motivation behind increasing activity in the Indian
Ocean was to secure pivotal maritime lines of communications that carry a large
share of Chinese oil imports and a sizable part of Chinese exports (Brewster,
2018, pp. 25–26; Lim, 2020, p. 2). Holmes and Yoshihara point that breaking the
‘first island chain’ is integral to China’s ambitions of Great Rejuvenation. The
authors further argue that while it is the most immediate goal, it is not the definite
one, since China will try to secure its interests in the Indian Ocean and Persian
Gulf (Yoshihara & Holmes, 2018 pp. 154–155).
This article aims to complement and deepen the understanding of security
dynamics associated with China’s rise by highlighting the role of the Malacca
Strait, the South China Sea and in the context of US–China competition in the
Indo-Pacific. The author adopts the perspective of the Balance of Threat Theory
(BoT) within the structural realism framework. BoT goes beyond traditional
realist Balance of Power theory by incorporating perception of changing
distribution of power among actors in the system. Threat perception is constructed
through four interacting elements: aggregate power, geographic proximity,
offensive capabilities and offensive intentions (Walt, 1985, 1990). The BoT does
not explicitly name the control over crucial lines of communication as a factor
influencing the dynamics between states, yet the issue of Malacca Strait and the
South China Sea is nevertheless compatible with the theory. The sea power and
control of strategic lines of communication (SLOCs) is a component of state
aggregated power. Levy and Thompson claim sea power to be even more important
for balancing mechanisms than land power (Levy & Thompson, 2010). Command
of the commons, freedom of navigation and the ability to impose a naval blockade
are also inseparable elements of constructing threat perception given the
paramount position of sea transport for economic and energy security.
The argument made here is that BoT dynamics so far have favour aligning with
the US to balance the rising threat from China (Japan, India, Taiwan) as America

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