Showdown in the South China Sea: America Takes On China

The U.S. Navy is quietly pushing back against China's bolder maritime claims.

During his intimate retreat with President Barack Obama back in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping boldly claimed, “The vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China.” Reinforcing lingering suspicions that he was perhaps calling for a Sino-American co-dominion in the Pacific theater, the Chinese leader proposed a “new model of great power relations,” where Washington and Beijing will effectively treat each other as peers with respective zones of influence in the area.

To be fair, Xi’s proposal for a new regional order—what I have called Pax Chimerica—was based on an earlier joint statement between the Hu Jintao administration in China and the newly-installed Obama administration, which has framed Sino-American relations as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world.” The November 2009 joint statement between the two powers quite controversially stated, “The two sides agreed that respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in U.S.-China relations.” For Beijing, one of those “core interests” is safeguarding China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty claims, which have progressively expanded from peripheral restive regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang to Taiwan and, in more recent years, much of the South China Sea.

Leaving little doubt vis-à-vis his administration’s commitment to consolidate China’s territorial interests in adjacent waters, Xi Jinping, shortly after taking over power, warned: “No foreign country should ever nurse hopes that we will bargain over our core national interests… Nor should they nurse hopes that we will swallow the bitter fruit of harm to our country’s sovereignty, security and development interests.” Within less than a year, China embarked on a massive construction bonanza across the disputed Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea, artificially turning rocks and atolls into full-fledged islands that will host advanced airstrips and military facilities.

As a result, China has directly challenged not only the territorial claims and sovereignty rights of smaller Southeast Asian claimant states, which have been heavily outmatched by a giant neighbor that is laying claim to land features and resources well beyond its 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, but it is also imperiling freedom of navigation and overflight in the area. Unlike other maritime superpowers throughout history, from the Netherlands and Britain in early modernity to the United States today, China is treating adjacent waters as an extension of its continental territory, its national “blue soil.”

Given the massive power asymmetry between China and its smaller neighbors, only the United States has the wherewithal to challenge Beijing’s unremitting quest for maritime dominance in East Asia. And to the delight of its Asian allies, particularly the Philippines and Japan, the Obama administration is finally poised to draw a line in the sand, challenging China’s great wall of sand in one of the most vital Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) on earth.

Refusing to acknowledge China’s sovereignty claims over artificially created islands in the area, the United States Navy (USN) will pierce into the twelve-nautical-mile radius of Beijing-occupied land features. It is a move that is both urgent and risky, simultaneously carrying the promise of reining in Chinese maritime assertiveness and provoking a confrontation with Asia’s superpower. Asia is at a critical juncture, with Beijing challenging the USN’s carte blanche to roam China’s near seas, while the United States is challenging China’s carte blanche to transform the South China Sea into its domestic lake.


Protecting Maritime Commons

In The Interest of America in Sea Power, Alfred Thayer Mahan underscored the importance of maritime dominance to great power politics, arguing: “Control of the sea, by maritime commerce and naval supremacy, means predominant influence in the world; because, however great the wealth product of the land, nothing facilitates the necessary exchanges as does the sea.” Mahan’s works undergirded America’s gradual expansion across the Pacific, with its naval forces eventually emerging as the de facto guarantor of freedom of navigation in the area after the Second World War.