Making Waves in the South China Sea

A ChinaFile Conversation

Challenging China’s newly assertive behavior in the South China Sea, this week the U.S. Navy sailed some of its biggest ships inside the nine-dash line, exercising its claim to freedom of movement in international waters plied by billions in trade each day. Was the U.S. action necessary? What might have been done differently? What was the calculus in Washington and what are the risks? What happened and what might happen next? —The Editors


The U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea were absolutely essential and should remain so in the future, although not for the reasons many believe. Rather than a critical challenge to some excessive maritime claim by China, the recent freedom of navigation operations were necessary to assert American rights and interests in military freedoms at sea. The difference is subtle but important. China’s claims to water space rights are nebulous at best, as the State Department’s 2014 “Limits in the Seas” analysis makes clear. The Chinese remain ambiguous about just how they assert the right to exercise legal jurisdiction over the water space within the nine-dash line, but unambiguous in their assertion of such rights. Additionally, while the Chinese assert that they do not and will not hinder freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Chinese officials have made clear since the 2001 EP-3 Incident that such freedoms do not apply to military operations. Pushing back with operational assertions against such shapeless statements was until now unnecessary. However, when the Chinese built thousands of acres of new islands on several tiny rocks and submerged features among the southern Spratly Islands this year, they also constructed the sort of military facilities designed to step up enforcement of their claimed law enforcement authorities and legally-excessive security interests there. This added a new power dimension to what previously has been a relatively manageable disagreement over law. Accordingly, American push-back was essential for two reasons: first, to make clear that America will not accept coastal state limitations to traditional freedoms of navigation that all navies enjoy; and second, to demonstrate that China’s power-play in the South China Sea will not drive American power out of this vital region.

Indeed, it is the vital nature of this region to American economic, political, and security interests that makes the U.S. Navy’s actions so important. It is American power, resident in the region and freely operating there, that protects Southeast Asia’s open, independent order. Specifically, American power prevents countries in the region from having to orient their political and economic decision-making around the increasingly strong gravitational pull of Beijing’s policies. As Indonesian policy makers have sometimes put it, they prefer to “row between two reefs.” Accordingly, as Chinese power advances in the South China Sea it is critical that the United States demonstrates it will not retreat. Yes, this establishes a new zone of competition between the U.S. and the P.R.C. The U.S. will have to accept increased friction, and even to create friction, as it protects and preserves its interests in the face of Chinese advances. This is not unexpected. As China advances to the ranks of great powers, global power dynamics are reverting to those more familiar to past generations. That does not mean great power war is inevitable. The world is very different and great power relations are very different from the past. But it does mean that competition and friction are inevitable. Freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea are a mark of this new chapter in U.S.-P.R.C. great power relations.

The United States and China are very far apart on what exactly the U.S. naval patrol demonstrated. For the U.S. government, this was an overdue but routine patrol to assert freedom of navigation in the South China Sea—a global public good that the United States has provided for decades and from which China itself has benefited enormously. It was carefully planned to deny excessive maritime claims stemming from the enlargement of submerged reefs or “low-tide elevations” under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), not just by China but also Vietnam and the Philippines. This is why U.S. officials repeatedly have stressed that these patrols are not provocative.

Far from agreeing with this position, Chinese officials and state media have condemned the U.S. action as “unlawful” and “provocative” and warned of “eventualities” if the United States continues to send further patrols. China’s strong rhetoric and domestic publicity given to the issue as a matter of national sovereignty suggest that the Chinese side is not planning to acquiesce going forward. Rather than deterring China from expanding its presence in the South China Sea, U.S. patrols are likely to be used as an excuse for China to continue building up “defensive” military capabilities in the area.

Although both sides have taken steps to minimize the immediate risks of escalation—with the U.S. government refraining from publicizing the patrol and the Chinese side dispatching patrols to shadow rather than harass the U.S. patrol—we are likely to see a hardening rather than softening of China’s position.

Peter Dutton already has explained cogently why the United States has engaged, and must continue to engage, in freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea. These “equal opportunity” activities have approached Vietnamese- and Philippine-occupied features as well, as the 2014 U.S. Department of Defense Freedom of Navigation Operations Report makes clear. Self-righteous ranting in state media outlets cannot change the fact that in its recent efforts to jurisdictionalize and de-internationalize the majority of the South China Sea, China:

Nevertheless, given its cultivation of nationalism to shore up public support despite a slowing economy, China’s government likely will attempt to increase pressure in an attempt to frustrate U.S. efforts and deter U.S. allies and partners from supporting them. Pressure will come in multiple forms, from diplomacy and public messaging to assertive activities on land and on and over the sea. On “land,” China may accelerate fortification of the features it occupies—likely a long-held objective in search of a justification. This would be a counter-productive policy, since it would drive the wedge deeper between China and its neighbors. In air and sea, China will likely attempt to make future FONOPS increasingly uncomfortable for foreign vessels and aircraft. This would be an over-reaction that fails to acknowledge vital international interests in this region. As part of such efforts, China may harass FONOPS vessels with maritime militia while misleadingly portraying them as ordinary civilian fishermen. Such theatrics would prove ineffective, since state control of these irregular forces is clearly documented and the U.S. government can publicize ample evidence in this regard.

In its current blustering, China is on the wrong side of both law and history, but is unlikely to initiate open conflict despite Admiral Wu Shengli’s dire predictions. The United States should keep calm and press on. It enjoys extensive, if often quiet, support throughout the Asia-Pacific and beyond. It should continue FONOPS and other legal activities to continually demonstrate that Beijing cannot carve out the “Near Seas” (Yellow, East, and South China seas) into a zone of exceptionalism where Beijing’s parochial priorities supersede vital international laws and norms.

This will require sustained determination. As President Obama himself recognizes, one must be “firm with [China], because they will push as hard as they can until they meet resistance.”

The previous commenters here are all agreed that a U.S. FONOP through China’s claimed twelve-mile zone was long overdue, and this appears to reflect a broadly-held position within the United States, at least, and likely within much of Asia outside of the PRC itself. Peter Dutton and Andrew Erickson have ably described why China’s claims are excessive and why the United States needed to demonstrate that it will not accept—explicitly or implicitly—Beijing’s claims.

It appears that the United States plans further FONOPs, and this is welcome. But such actions should be accompanied by important changes to what appears to be current U.S. policy.

First, the United States needs to continue, routinize, and potentially as appropriate, expand these FONOPs. This is important to establish a more reasonable and advantageous perception of what is “escalatory.” Right now, U.S. action of any kind represents a change from the status quo, while China’s continued island-building and development appear to be just more of the same. Thus, a major part of the reason why the sailing of the U.S.S. Lassen near Subi Reef received so much attention is precisely because it seemed a change from the normal. While the Administration has stated that there were six FONOPs in the South China Sea in recent years, none of them received anything like the attention of the Lassen sailing, and it is not clear that they challenged China’s claims regarding newly exploited formations. The United States needs to change this sense of what is normal and what is legitimate in order to rebaseline perceptions of what is legitimate, and it should do so by continuing and, if necessary, broadening these FONOPs, including perhaps by more directly challenging China’s claims.

Furthermore, the United States needs to be open and unabashed about these FONOPs, rather than sheepish and almost embarrassed, as the U.S. Government has been. Nothing is so perfectly designed to make American action appear less legitimate and responsible than the United States’ very public attempt to conceal and redirect attention away from the Lassen’s sailing. If such an action is reasonable and legitimate, why is the United States so disinclined to talk about it?

This is all especially important because China and actors throughout Asia are continually gauging whether it makes sense to stick with the United States and try to balance China, even while engaging it, or whether Washington is too thin a reed on which to rely. Today, everyone—including Beijing—knows that if China escalates a standoff in the South China Sea it will end very badly for the PRC. Yet the United States seems to be acting like China has the advantage in escalation. So what does this say about when China is much stronger, as it is very likely to be in ten years?

The United States must demonstrate that it is resolute, that it is committed to protecting its interests and allies in the region, and that it is prepared to bear the discomfort of the possibility of escalation. There is no better way to to do this than to conduct well-justified, reasonable, and safely-conducted FONOPs—and to make no bones about it.