An Easy Primer on the South China Sea

An Easy Primer on the South China Sea
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In the coming days, an obscure court in the Netherlands will issue a ruling in a dispute between the Philippines and China over an uninhabited Pacific reef known as Scarborough Shoal.  It will be an important test of whether China can rise peacefully, as the Chinese government claims it is doing. The U.S. Navy is concerned enough about Chinese aggression that they just held a rare two-carrier strike group exercise in range of the Philippines. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson termed the exercise a deterrence message. That is, the United States is allied to the Philippines and will defend it if China contests the verdict by force.  

One of the best strategies in warfare and diplomacy is to raise the costs to your adversaries.  The approach does not require you to compel a change in their behavior, it simply changes their incentive structure, which is a much lower-cost venture.  So, for example, America’s adversaries utilize tactics such as terror attacks in the U.S., improvised explosive devises targeting deployed U.S. troops, designed to cause American political leaders to reconsider whether objectives merit at an increasing cost.  Those adversaries cannot defeat American military forces, but they can chip away at Americans’ willingness to persevere in the fight.

America seldom chooses indirect methods in our own foreign policy; such creativity tends to be the domain of weak states confronting the strong. We are currently the beneficiary of one such elegant approach by an American ally, though.  The government of the Philippines has brought suit against China in the Court of Arbitration for asserting claims in the South China Sea.  This seemingly arcane legal proceeding is hugely important for preventing China’s challenge to the legal order the United States established and defends in Asia.

The case challenges China’s unilateral assertion of a nine-dash line, literally lines on a map of the ocean, as violations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  The messy competing claims to territory in the South China Sea are tiresome to untangle.  The main point of contention is China unilaterally asserting territorial waters and an exclusive economic zone far in excess of what is permitted by the Convention.  China’s position does not deny they are stipulating separate rules for themselves; just that their sovereignty is supreme and the Philippines must negotiate bilaterally with them instead of appealing to any other authority.

Simply put, China’s policy is to create circumstances in which weaker neighbors are forced to confront Chinese power on their own; U.S. policy is to put our might alongside those countries upholding rules applied impartially.  Infuriatingly for the Chinese government, their policies have reinforced American alliances and caused neighbors to welcome closer military cooperation with the U.S. and among themselves. Japan now conducts maritime patrols with the Philippines and is strengthening the maritime forces of Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, with the Philippines offering to host American military forces.

China first tried to prevent the proceedings by refusing to participate. It claims its declaration of sovereignty meets the Convention requirements, and therefore the Court has no jurisdiction.  The Court rejected that argument.  The Court’s decision is expected in the next few days, and if it should rule in favor of the Philippines, the government of China is likely to react as badly and erratically as it did when the Chinese stock market collapsed last summer.  Only this time, it will be the Chinese military and not the Central Bank of China calling the shots.

The American military is strong and creative enough to protect our friends and our interests should China choose violence.  Secretary Carter has been a clarion voice on what American interests are and American actions should be. Whether a President who seems to believe military force achieves nothing will continue to support Carter’s approach as things heat up with China is the crucial hinge of American policy.

One last point, the United States is not a signatory of the Law of the Sea convention.  That we are not is ridiculously counter-productive.  The Convention enshrines in treaty law the very practices we want every country to abide by.  It is a terrible example of our inability to, as Jim Mattis says, take our own side in the fight.

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