Securing Sovereignty: When Should America Weigh In?

America doesn't like to get involved in sovereignty disputes, but is having second thoughts as China and Russia expand.

In mid-February, the United States government’s long-standing position that it does not opine on sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Seas was given an important and long-implicit caveat: Washington does insist that all sovereignty claims accord with international law, and as has long been stated, these cannot rely on coercion. This position, articulated in testimony by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Russel, took on new significance just a few weeks later, when Moscow unilaterally upended Ukrainian sovereignty in its occupation and annexation of Crimea. This updated position on Pacific maritime disputes and ongoing events in Eastern Europe raise an important question: For the United States, which aims to protect the status quo and the international legal principles that support it, when is the right time to opine on a sovereignty dispute? The Ukraine crisis has demonstrated that there are several reasons why it may be advisable for the United States to take a position on some Pacific sovereignty disputes sooner rather than later if Chinese maritime revisionism persists. This is because deterring prospective opportunism may be easier than compelling a challenger to reverse course once he has executed a fait accompli. There are also, however, several drawbacks to clarifying sovereignty positions too soon, and these must be enter into calculations as Washington considers whether and when it should update its public position on maritime sovereignty disputes.

Washington’s longstanding position that is does not comment on sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas, including those that involve its treaty allies, has some clear advantages. In any given maritime conflict, the United States has a limited national interest at best, and taking sides could commit it to a future conflict in which it has little stake. This nuanced position allows Washington to minimize the risk of moral hazard by allies and leaves some room for maneuver in the case of crisis. It also permits the possibility of accommodation with Beijing over these disputes, and major-power cooperation more broadly.

US reticence on sovereignty disputes may have its limits, however. As analysts have observed, American officials have increasingly taken a firmer line when it comes to China’s maritime claims. This reflects an important reality: Beijing’s use of coercion in the South and East China Seas has been undeniable in recent years. Whether or not this is part of a long-term, calculated strategy remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that Beijing has engaged in moderate revisionism of the status quo that contravenes international law. China’s so-called “Nine-dash Line” map is of questionable legality, and efforts to impede freedom of navigation violate the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Washington cannot know if Beijing actually intends to acquire all of the maritime areas it claims. But US attempts to cooperate with and to dissuade Beijing from opportunism may be more effective if Washington determines for itself what may constitute unacceptable infringement on the status quo, and considers the conditions under which it may revise its position on specific sovereignty disputes.

Russia’s flagrant transgression of its neighbor’s borders helps to illustrate why policymakers may want to reconsider their silence on sovereignty disputes under the right circumstances. Since its occupation of Crimea, top US officials, including President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have been unequivocal in their condemnation of Moscow’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and blatant disregard for international law. Respected analysts have reminded us that in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, borders are no longer changed through force and cannot be if a rules-based international order is to be upheld. As officials have widely admitted, however, there remains little recourse for rolling back Russia’s annexation of Crimea. This reflects the fact that it is more difficult to compel a challenger to reverse a course he has already taken than it is to deter an opportunist before he makes a controversial move. One would be remiss to draw extensive parallels between Crimea and Pacific maritime disputes—the former is a large, inhabited peninsula with a long history of cultural and political ties to Russia, while the latter largely consists of uninhabited atolls. But it would also be a mistake to ignore the important lesson that disputes cannot easily be resolved in favor of the status quo once sovereignty has been undermined.

There are several reasons why it is difficult to convince a challenger like Moscow to change behavior once it has conducted a fait accompli. First, any time a limited land grab takes place there is always likely to be an asymmetry of interests between the challenger and other major powers who aim to uphold the status quo. The revisionist state has strongly-held reasons for its claims, but unless the transgression is massive, other states will necessarily have limited national interests in the object under dispute. Even collectively, they are unlikely to resist the territorial contest with the same force that the challenger advances it.

This, in turn, means that a major military intervention is unlikely to be the tool of choice. Sensibly, there have been few calls for foreign military options in Ukraine. Similar hesitations may abound if China seized one or more of the maritime territories it claims. But this means that the status quo’s enforcers are left to confront militarized coercion with nonmilitary tools.