The South China Sea Could Become a Dangerous Contest of Military Might
Here’s how the United States can prevent that.
In 2009, during the first go-round of China’s extended push to assert control over almost all of the South China Sea, Beijing staked its claim on a map that it submitted to the United Nations and soon published in every new passport it issued to its citizens.
The map, formerly an obscure relic of Nationalist rule in the early 20th century, quickly became famous around the world for its most important feature, a loop in the form of nine dashes that droops hundreds of miles from China’s southernmost province, the island of Hainan, and approaches the shores of several Southeast Asian nations to enclose one of the world’s most important waterways. The map put China’s neighbors on notice that the region’s largest country was turning boldly revisionist as it grew in strength. For the time being, though, some may have been reassured by their belief that most of the world would scorn China’s attempt at cartographic fiat as fundamentally baseless.
Beijing’s own lack of confidence in the “nine-dashed line” is reflected in how it has never published coordinates delineating this claim, relying instead on a nebulous argument that China was the first to discover the group of islands and reefs now known as the Spratlys in antiquity — and has exercised control over them ever since. Virtually no element of this argument bears close scrutiny. For starters, it requires believing that the peoples of countries far closer to these formations than China — Malays, Chams, and Malaccans, to name a few — were not the formidable seafarers that they were.
The other clear giveaway that China lacked faith in any legal basis to its claim was its refusal to participate in a case brought by the Philippines to a U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) tribunal in 2013 directly challenging the nine-dashed line. Beijing announced almost immediately that regardless of the outcome, the tribunal’s decision would have no bearing on its behavior.
Rather than passively await the tribunal’s judgment, though, China has embarked on a breathtaking campaign of land reclamation and artificial-island building in the South China Sea, which in little more than a year has seeded the waterway with numerous new terrestrial positions, most of them large enough to be garrisoned and some already outfitted with runways long enough to accommodate military transport planes.
In proceeding to create “facts on the sea,” China has effectively announced its disinterest in reasoned discussion or debate. Many observers regarded it as a diplomatic gaffe when China’s then-foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, delivered a condescending lecture to his counterparts at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum in 2010 when the subject of maritime rights was raised. “China is a big country and other countries are small countries,” Yang declared — which everyone understood to mean they would have to bow before Beijing’s will. But after a similar regional gathering in Singapore in late May 2015, when several participants, including U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, pressed Beijing to halt its island building, the Foreign Ministry repeated this logic, calling China “a major country” — suggesting it has special prerogatives.
Sovereignty is something traditionally defined collectively, but Hua Chunying, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, later unspooled a series of talking points that signaled a mounting unilateralism on the issue. China’s claims in the South China Sea were formed over “the long course of history” and have “adequate historical and legal basis,” she asserted flatly. China’s construction work is “lawful, reasonable, and justified,” and is proceeding “at a pace and with a scale befitting her international responsibilities.” Freedom of navigation has never been and will never be an issue, she said, before adding that this concept should not be used “as an excuse to infringe upon the sovereignty, rights and security of coastal countries,” an implicit warning to the United States, which she effectively said should butt out.
In his remarks in Singapore this May, Carter pointedly offered a starkly different perspective, vowing American military assets would “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” adding pointedly that “turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.”
The way each side has framed matters raises the question: Why should Washington invest its might and prestige in such a faraway dispute at all? The most immediate reason is that for now, the United States is the only country that has both the means and the self-assurance to do so. China’s rival claimants, countries like the Philippines and even Vietnam, know that to confront Beijing so directly would invite defeat or humiliation. And this is exactly why proponents of American action regard it as an imperative.
At bottom, the unfolding dispute between Beijing and Washington is about two tightly intertwined issues that will go further than most realize in determining the future of the international order. The first is how major powers should interpret maritime law — and China and the United States take radically different positions on this, befitting their very different geographic circumstances.
The United States became a global power in two steps. First, it achieved supremacy in its own hemisphere. And second, beginning with the end of the 19th-century Spanish-American War, by projecting its strength overseas via a navy that could dominate either of the world’s two largest oceans — by setting out at its leisure from either the East or the West Coast (plus the notable additions of Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam).
China, by contrast, is surrounded by historically troublesome, terrestrial neighbors, and its one coastline, in the East, is bottled up North to South by a long string of countries from the Korean Peninsula to Indonesia, which it refers to as the “first island chain.” Moreover, since World War II, the United States has maintained military alliances with many of the key nations off China’s coast, most notably Japan and the Philippines. For over seven decades now, American bases throughout the region have helped make the U.S. Navy the preeminent force in the seas off China.
Today’s China is determined to become a first-rank maritime power, but to do so, Beijing must first somehow become preeminent in its home waters. For the most part, talk of freedom of navigation is a distraction in the region’s mounting test of strength. Dominating the waters enclosed by the first island chain is vital for Beijing — for two far less discussed reasons. The first is about achieving tactical dominance in its home waters, making it prohibitively dangerous for the United States to deploy the nearby 7th Fleet in a conflict over Taiwan or in war with China.
The second reason is publicly invoked even less but arguably even more important. China possesses a much small nuclear arsenal than the United States. Survivability for any credible Chinese second-strike capability depends heavily on nuclear-armed submarines that operate from Hainan. The United States patrols the waters of the South China Sea with the worlds most advanced anti-submarine monitoring and warfare capabilities, and — to China’s great irritation — the Pentagon constantly monitors submarine traffic from Hainan to collect acoustic and operational intelligence.
China may have abandoned the nine-dashed line argument, but it has in no way lowered its ambitions to control the South China Sea. To prevail there, Beijing can be expected to push a theory of maritime law that runs strongly contrary to that of the United States, and indeed of most nations. The general consensus holds that the 200-nautical-mile margin known as the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which every coastal state is endowed with under UNCLOS, bars other nations from fishing, mining, and the like — but allows “innocent passage” of military vessels. China (along with, most notably, India and Brazil) holds that activity by foreign military vessels — including intelligence gathering — is excluded in other nations’ EEZs, unless they are granted prior permission.
In the South China Sea, the implications of this are profound and grow ever more dramatic with China’s busy island-building campaign. In December 2014, I visited the Hainan-based think tank National Institute for South China Sea Studies. The director, Wu Shicun, affected a startled look and replied “Of course not,” when I asked him if the artificial islands China is building would enjoy any sovereign rights, such as an economic zone or airspace. In the space of a few months, though, China’s position seems to have already begun to shift, as borne out by Chinese navy warnings to “leave immediately in order to avoid misjudgment,” issued to an American overflight of one of its new land reclamation projects at Fiery Cross.
At the Singapore gathering, China avoided addressing the question of its theory of sovereign rights for the artificial islands it is building on submerged reefs and atolls in the Spratlys. To the extent that nautical limits can be established around them, China will be able to bar foreign navies from large swaths of the South China Sea, and if the 200 nautical mile standard can be applied broadly enough, these waters would become a no-go zone to others — a new “great wall of sand,” as the U.S. commander in the Pacific, Adm. Harry Harris, put it. That is why, from Washington’s point of view, standing up to Beijing and preventing it from establishing any precedent, seems so compelling.
There was a moment of unusual candor at the Singapore gathering that could have easily been dismissed as bluster, when Carter vowed the United States “will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.” Wherever one stands on the underlying issues, that is indeed what this is about. Few contests will be more momentous in the years ahead.
If the nature of this competition is clear, the best way forward for the United States is not. Critics who say that Washington has been underinvested in this problem since as far back as the 1990s have cheered the Pentagon’s show of resolve. The United States’ best option, though, is probably to eschew showy confrontation and emphasize, instead, the stakes for the international system.
The single best measure available would be for Congress to ratify UNCLOS — a move which is scarcely discussed in Washington nowadays. From there, the United States should urge sympathetic states in the Western Pacific to take their cases against China to the Law of the Sea tribunal, like the Philippines has done. If China continues to build artificial islands and equip them militarily, it may be necessary to steam into waters claimed by Beijing on dubious grounds. But calling China out legally allows a range of smaller countries to take a stand on a rules-based international order — which is what the United States should stand for — rather than reducing this to a dangerous contest of military might.
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images