Why China's Gambit in the South China Sea Matters

Why China's Gambit in the South China Sea Matters
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Why is China “reclaiming” reefs and atolls in the South China Sea? Ask the strategist Woody Allen, who famously declared that “showing up is eighty percent of life.” Or ask Admiral J. C. Wylie, who pronounced the “man on the scene with a gun” the arbiter of control over land, air, or sea space. If showing up is eighty percent of life, then, staying there—in force—constitutes the other twenty.

And Beijing covets control over the South China Sea. It has inscribed a “nine-dashed line” on the map enclosing the vast majority of the sea, including waters apportioned to China’s maritime neighbors by the law of the sea. And it has asserted “indisputable sovereignty”—which means physical control before all else—within that line.

China needs to position ships and planes close to trouble spots where foreign militaries may contest what it deems incontestable. Wylie and Allen would nod knowingly.

“Reclaimed”—or, more accurately, fabricated—islands could provide outposts for policing Chinese-claimed waters and skies. The U.S. Pacific Command estimates that engineers have created some 600 acres of land over the past year alone. Infrastructure such as airfields and logistics depots could commence operations this year—helping China establish a standing presence in maritime Southeast Asia.

China’s coast guard, navy, and air forces may show up in the region armed with superior force—and stay. So what? Well, sovereignty over geographic space means that what the sovereign says goes. Domestic, not international, law prevails. If Beijing makes law governing activities in the South China Sea—and deploys the wherewithal to enforce it—it will transform the regional order.

For the worse. China’s policy pits it against Southeast Asian states jealous of their own offshore interests and prerogatives. Coastal states may lawfully claim “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs) extending 200 nautical miles off their shorelines. As the phrase implies, they enjoy exclusive rights to harvest natural resources—fish, undersea oil and gas, and so forth—from the waters or seafloor within their EEZs.

Asserting sovereign jurisdiction over another coastal state’s EEZ amounts to wresting natural riches from it. That sets a dangerous precedent. If China can flout the law of the sea because it wants to so very, very much—and if no one stops China from doing so—what’s to stop future great powers from purloining smaller neighbors’ waters and resources? Not much.

Its actions also put China at odds with all seafaring states, imperiling freedom of the sea worldwide. There is no sovereign of the seas. The law of the sea designates the waters and skies beyond 12 nautical miles offshore as a “commons.” Freedom of the seas prevails there. Any navy, coast guard, merchant marine, or shipping firm may use the commons for commercial or military endeavors.

No government may abridge freedom of the commons, yet China purports to do so within the nine-dashed line. Enforcing sovereign jurisdiction over a major swathe of the global commons vitiates freedom of the sea within that expanse. And again, it sets a very bad precedent. If China in the South China Sea, why not Russia in the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, or even, someday, a newly ice-free Arctic Ocean?

We often hear that Asian maritime disputes are about “uninhabited rocks” of trivial value, unworthy of expending resources or running risks to safeguard. Balderdash. A principle is at stake. U.S. and Asian leaders must ask themselves: are you prepared to write off freedom of the seas—the bedrock principle that underlies the liberal maritime order on which global prosperity rests—for the sake of amity vis-à-vis Beijing?

If the answer is yes, a bleak world where might makes right awaits. How might we get there from here? Robert Haddick channels economist/strategist Thomas Schelling, likening China’s South China Sea strategy to “salami-slicing.” That is, Beijing takes a little, denying rivals the incentive to mount serious opposition, and then takes a little more. It gobbles up the whole salami over time. An apt metaphor. Trouble is, principles either hold, or they don’t. They’re indivisible.

Freedom of the sea holds everywhere, in other words, or it may not anywhere. If the “salami” is a principle of fundamental importance—like freedom of the seas—how much can its owners let a predator devour before the principle disappears? That question should give the United States—which has presided over the maritime order since 1945 and wants to perpetuate it indefinitely—pause.

Now, what will China do with its island redoubts? For the past few years I’ve been pushing the idea of “small-stick diplomacy,” a riff on Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim of the Big Stick. The conceit is that if China wants to assert sovereign jurisdiction in the South China Sea, it should behave like the sovereign—policing the zones it claims. It should conduct itself matter-of-factly rather than admit there’s any dispute. And indeed, that’s what China has done in recent years.

That means law-enforcement assets—principally from the China Coast Guard—are Beijing’s implements of choice. For the most part Southeast Asian navies are too weak to stand up even to coast-guard vessels. Heck, the flagship of the Philippine Navy is a coast-guard vessel, a 1960s-era hand-me-down from the U.S. Coast Guard. But Beijing keeps the big stick of military force in reserve—just in case—and its armed forces vastly outclass any Southeast Asian rival.

The upshot: China’s island installations will likely furnish support if not play host to coast-guard units as well as military shipping and aircraft. If so, J. C. Wylie’s man on the scene—the ships and planes that patrol Chinese-claimed waters and airspace—will be a constable walking his beat with a nightstick. Only as a last resort will soldiers or seamen bearing heavy artillery be dispatched to the scene to restore order. 

That’s much the same arrangement as law enforcement in the domestic setting. The police handle lawbreaking while military force supplies a backstop should circumstances get out of control. Think about the National Guard deploying to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the local authorities. When the small stick fails, reach for the big stick.

It’s been pointed out that China’s new island bases may be indefensible, as though that nullifies their value to Beijing. And that’s true in a narrow military sense. These flyspecks are small, and scattered about the South China Sea. They have no resources to sustain life. They will have no natural defenses. A seaborne adversary could pummel them with missiles and air strikes, or seal them off from outside resupply so they wither on the vine.

But reviewing the situation in strategic and political context tells a different story. A threat is a product of capabilities and intentions. If either element is zero, the threat is too. Clearly, the U.S. military boasts capabilities that could clobber Chinese outposts in the South China Sea. So do some Asian forces. But what about intentions?

Who has the gumption to assault a base belonging to a nuclear-armed foe that cares deeply about policing what it considers its rightful territory—and has deployed police units to that base? That puts a different complexion on things. In strictly military terms, these redoubts will be vulnerable. Short of open war, though, it’s doubtful anyone would make the attempt—and risk hitting China Coast Guard white hulls.

Deterrence promises to be forbidding, then. Fathoming the nature of competitive enterprises—and trying to foresee how an opponent could balk our efforts—constitutes the beginning of strategic wisdom. Washington must comprehend what’s at stake in Southeast Asia, determine how much it prizes freedom of the seas and its relations with regional allies, and allocate resources to uphold its interests and purposes.

Then we may mount some deterrence of our own.

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