It feels like 2014 again. That’s when it came to light that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had embarked on a seemingly quixotic project: manufacturing islands out of reefs and atolls in the South China Sea and then fortifying them to extend its sway vis-à-vis Southeast Asian rivals impertinent enough to insist on their maritime rights. The region was a fixture in headlines that year and into the next while Washington and Beijing traded barbs accusing each other of “militarizing” the situation.
This week the Trump administration renewed the controversy, issuing a revised “U.S. Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea.” In the key paragraph Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proclaimed that “the world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law. We stand with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose ‘might makes right’ in the South China Sea or the wider region.”
Now, empire is a freighted word for sure. Communist China defines itself in opposition to European and Japanese imperialism, a scourge CCP leaders decry for inflicting a “century of humiliation” on Asia’s leading power. Unsurprisingly, then, China’s embassy in Washington DC leapt to deny Pompeo’s accusation.
And indeed, the CCP is not seeking an empire in the South China Sea, strictly speaking. An empire exercises dominion over foreign territories from an imperial center. Beijing wants far more than a maritime empire. It covets ownership. It wants to make the South China Sea what Romans once called the Mediterranean Sea—namely mare liberum, or “our sea.”
CCP magnates make no effort to conceal their aims. Since 2009, in fact, officialdom has frankly and regularly avowed that its paramount goal is “indisputable sovereignty” within a “nine-dashed line” enclosing the vast majority of the South China Sea. This is an extravagant claim. Think about what sovereignty is. A sovereign government exercises a monopoly on the use of armed force within borders inscribed on the map. It ordains and others obey. The law of the sea, which proscribes national ownership of maritime space—with few, specific, and narrowly drawn exceptions, none of which justify Beijing’s claims—will be no more in the South China Sea if Xi Jinping & Co. get their way.
The waters and land features within the nine-dashed line will be Chinese territory.
And an awful precedent will have been set. Surrendering the South China Sea would embolden other coastal states to repeal the law of the sea by fiat if they felt strongly about offshore seas and possessed sufficient physical might to enforce their will. Hence Secretary Pompeo’s warning against letting the primeval principle that might makes right—that the strong seize what they want in international affairs and the weak accommodate themselves to the strong—prevail.
Freedom of the sea is a pressing interest for the United States and any seafaring society. It should be nonnegotiable.
But there are reasons apart from international law why Americans should care whether the Chinese Communist Party rules a faraway expanse of which they know little. First, access. As Alfred Thayer Mahan pointed out a century ago, the paramount goal of maritime strategy is to ensure commercial, diplomatic, and military access to important trading regions such as East Asia. Commerce is king. Military access assures political access assures commercial access and the blessings trade brings. At the same time access is a crucial enabler for maritime strategy. Commerce generates wealth sufficient to fund a navy to protect commerce. Acquiescing in Beijing’s maritime claims would encumber freedom of movement for merchantmen and warships—threatening to interrupt this virtuous cycle and hurt American prosperity.
It’s never a good time to put prosperity at hazard. Doing so in a pandemic year—a year rife with economic uncertainty—would amount to strategic malpractice. What happens in Southeast Asia has direct implications for Americans.
Second, geopolitics. If U.S. foreign policy has aimed at securing commercial access since the age of Mahan, it also aims at keeping the “rimlands” of East Asia and Western Europe from falling under the dominion of some hostile power or alliance. North America occupies a fortunate geographic position, buffered against Eurasian enmities by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. If some geopolitical competitor unified one of the rimlands under its rule, however, it might wrest away martial resources sufficient to reach out across the ocean and do the United States harm in its own hemisphere.
To keep the rimlands fragmented among competing powers and hold danger at bay, U.S. diplomats and seafarers have to be able to get to the rimlands. Consequently, the U.S. Navy, affiliated joint forces, and allied military services must rule what geopolitics sage Nicholas Spykman termed the “girdle of marginal seas” adjoining the Eurasian perimeter. The South China Sea figures prominently among these marginal waterways—and thus to America’s rimlands strategy. Washington cannot let it go.
And third, friends and allies. The United States has no strategic position in the Western Pacific without local partners and the harbors and bases they supply. It must keep its commitments to treaty allies such as the Philippine Islands lest they resign themselves to Chinese Communist supremacy and close their soil to U.S. forces. America could find itself locked out of the region. Its commercially and geopolitically driven foreign policy would falter as a result. Manila is a primary target of CCP abuse in the South China Sea, having seen waters apportioned to it under the law of the sea purloined by China’s maritime militia, coast guard, and navy. Deterring new aggression while reversing past transgressions must be central to U.S. strategy.
Clearly, then, failing to honor longstanding security guarantees to the Philippines and other allies would place U.S. foreign policy and strategy in jeopardy in manifold ways. If Americans prefer a world of wealth and safety, they have ample reason to take an interest in Southeast Asian affairs. Abandoning the region to a Roman fate risks sacrificing our own future.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.