The Trillion-Dollar Question: Who Will Control the South China Sea?

A look back into history produces some interesting conclusions. 

Recent developments in the South China Sea have lumbered U.S. strategic planners with a number of pressing quandaries. Should the United States send warships through sea lanes claimed by China as territorial waters?  How can Washington signal resolve and reassurance to its allies in the region without unduly antagonizing China’s political and military leaders?  What is the right mix of diplomacy, military, and political engagement?

These short-term decisions will rightly preoccupy teams of Washington-based Asia hands for months and, perhaps, years to come. But focusing on the short term alone risks obscuring the true nature of the strategic problem facing the United States.  Properly understood, the future of the South China Sea is a long-term geopolitical question of perhaps unparalleled significance in East Asia. Policy should not be made in response to short-term exigencies but rather with long-term strategic objectives in mind.  In turn, this means a full and frank understanding of what exactly is at stake in the South China Sea.

Robert Kaplan has argued that control of the South China Sea is as central to Asian geopolitics as the Mediterranean Sea has been to Europe and the Caribbean Sea is to the Americas. The point of Kaplan’s comparison, of course, is to suggest that the question of “who governs” from the Taiwan Strait to the Strait of Malacca be taken very seriously. For if any single power can claim mastery over this vast oceanic expanse then that power would wield enormous leverage over its potential competitors: strategic, military, and economic.

At the moment, the United States Navy certainly has a commanding presence in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific more generally, but it falls far short of complete control.  The U.S. has precious little influence, in fact, when it comes to dictating how China and the various other littoral states will go about settling their territorial disputes.  Moreover, America’s relative power would appear to be waning (at least vis-à-vis China).  So what should America’s long-term policy be?  Which power, or group of powers, should the U.S. throw its weight behind? And what kind of future should U.S. policy be ordered towards bringing into fruition?

When it comes to answering these questions, Kaplan’s comparison with the Mediterranean and the Caribbean can only help so much. Certainly, the comparisons offer nothing by way of policies that the U.S. might emulate. Take the Mediterranean, for example. Since at least the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) onwards, one naval power has always been able to establish and maintain control of the sea. First, it was the British who were in command, London’s control underpinned by the size and strength of the Royal Navy and the effective stewardship of the Strait of Gibraltar and (from 1882) the Suez Canal.

Britain, of course, was went to great lengths to maintain this naval primacy. It took colonies in Malta and Cyprus, for example, and fought the brutal Crimean War against Russia in order to prevent the Dardanelles and Bosphorus from falling into hostile hands. It is not that Britain never faced challenges to its primacy, then—it most certainly did—but by maintaining a sizable fleet and being active in diplomatic coalition-building (and coalition-breaking), Britain proved willing to pay the price of maintaining maritime dominance. And by and large, this investment in maritime supremacy paid off: British mastery of the Mediterranean was critical to maintaining British influence on the continent—allowing Britain to fulfill the function of “off-shore balancer,” for example—and would later prove decisive in both World War I and World War II.

After World War II, it was the United States Navy that moved to assert control in the Mediterranean, its massive Sixth Fleet intended to deter Soviet aggression and maintain peace and stability in the wider region. With Britain in terminal decline and communism seemingly on the march in the Eastern Mediterranean (particularly Greece and perhaps Turkey), President Truman even promulgated his famous “Truman Doctrine” to declare that the U.S. would defeat communism expansionism wherever it might occur—but especially in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Eisenhower Doctrine to bolster anti-communist regimes in the Middle East can also be considered as a geostrategic move to bolster U.S. control of the same region.

But the U.S. in Asia cannot replicate either Britain’s or its own history of controlling the Mediterranean. For all its naval power, the U.S. nevertheless lacks a strategic asset in the South China Sea of the same caliber as Gibraltar, Malta or Cyprus; it does not control the Malacca Strait or Taiwan Strait as Britain could credibly control Suez and Gibraltar. And whereas Britain fought and won (and America threatened to fight) wars to prevent rival powers from muscling in on the Mediterranean, China is already building island bases of its own in the South China Seaaltering, in fact, the very geography of the sea in order to make Beijing the primary power in the region. Unless America wants to fight a Crimean War of its own, China will not be stopped.