In 2009, the Chinese declared: “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof.” Since then, this claim has been repeated often and at all levels. In a November 2015 speech to the Singapore National University Xi Jinping himself stated “The South China Sea islands are China's territory since the ancient times.”
It is no surprise that “sovereignty” is a prominent part of China’s response to the tribunal verdict. Applying the term “historical sovereignty” to almost the entire South China Sea embeds this issue in the Chinese Communist Party’s mission to recover territory lost to the West and other powers during the Century of Humiliation. This elevates the South China Sea to a survival-level interest for China’s leadership.
The Chinese leadership cannot compromise, let alone back down, without risking severe damage to domestic stability, including nationalist protests and even the survival of the regime itself. The fates of the Qing Dynasty and the Nationalist regime are well remembered, and major leadership changes are due next year.
The U.S. stance has been carefully deliberate and measured. Since May 2015, when we asserted our right to “fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” we performed three very-well-telegraphed “Freedom of Navigation” operations. But “Innocent Passage” rules were reportedly followed, and the message became confused.
Operations of U.S. naval and air forces are a critical, necessary response in this situation. They must be continued and even increased, and done without publicity and fanfare. But they are not, by themselves, sufficient. A much more difficult challenge is assuring the access of all claimants to the resources of the sea, both animal and mineral. This will require maritime law enforcement means as well as some agreed-upon system for responsible and sustainable resource management.
For our part, our much-discussed “pivot” to Asia is incomplete. Defense and security initiatives are moving forward deliberately, but the centerpiece of our engagement with Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), is stalled. Our quadrennial election rhythms and requirements have overtaken TPP progress. The Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are both now solidly antitrade—ironically an area of agreement in this dismal political process. An end of the year push for ratification in a lame duck Congress will be risky, as the president-elect as well as much of the electorate is sure to be dead set against it, if we take each at his or her word.
At best, perhaps we can get a “reset” but that will require—if not major rewrite and time-consuming referral back to the signatories—major “trade adjustments” at home to protect threatened constituents before Senators can support ratification without career change. Far from a tangential issue, TPP purgatory damages our prestige when we need it most. The TPP’s ever-pending status sends a message that our “pivot” is solely about militarizing our Asian policy. The longer the “pivot” is perceived to be only about the military, the longer we will be hampered in our diplomacy, the longer the “containment” myth will be perpetuated and the longer our friends will be left hanging.
Given China’s often declared and well signaled intentions, our position in the region must be founded on an undoubted deterrent capability centered on the defense of Japan and other nations in the First Island Chain and bordering the South China Sea. “Given rapid advances in Chinese military capabilities, the consequences of conflict with that nation are almost unthinkable and should be avoided to the greatest extent possible, consistent with U.S. interests. It is therefore critical to achieve the right combination of assurance and dissuasion and to maintain a favorable peace before conflict occurs. At the same time the ability of the United States to work with both allies and partners to achieve those peaceful ends will depend on the perceptions both of allies and partners and of China of the U.S. ability to prevail in the event of conflict.”
This is especially important to deterring a seizure, or a blockade, of additional features. Allied and partner nations need to fully contribute to the security of threatened territory. Unilateral U.S. action is not a viable course of action. Japan’s skillful and determined actions in the East China Sea provide a powerful precedent.
In addition to military capabilities, and perhaps even more urgent, is the creation of powerful maritime surveillance and maritime law enforcement capabilities. Our allies and partners need to be able to counter illegal activities in their own seas. Coupled with this might be an aggressive diplomatic effort to create a system to manage marine resources—primarily fish, but also seabed minerals. Any purposeful destruction of the common environmental heritage of the global commons must bring a severe political and reputational price. Supporting and advocating a marine conservation and restoration effort should allow us to regain a bit of dominance in the ongoing competition over the narrative. Perhaps non-governmental environmental organizations can find their voice again if a preservation and restoration effort gets started. The creation of a system that establishes and enforces rules of conduct over fish and minerals can be a positive for those industries. This problem is not confined to the South China Sea. China’s raids on the coral resources in Japan’s Ogasawara islands about one thousand kilometers south of Tokyo has generally passed without comment in much of the global media.
Ubiquitous surveillance capability including details of fishing boat locations, with real time public results, must be deployed. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies provides a very compelling early prototype that should be expanded in both detail and coverage. A system of radars, coast watchers, expanded law enforcement, dispute resolution forums and social media exposure of Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported—the so-called IUU—fishing with pictures, identification and geolocation may also be helpful.
Port and airfield infrastructure construction along the littoral would aid commerce as well as law enforcement. Funding could be through loans, foreign aid and mutual development projects by the United States, Japan, Australia and India. Conversion of civil aircraft and ships to Coast Guard and Fisheries Enforcement craft would aid surveillance and enforcement efforts.
Other actions we might consider include maritime coalition activities without declarations. Quiet but effective cooperation among the United States, Japan, Australia and India would be very helpful.
Trade deals do not have to wait for us to sort out the TPP again. Our industries, our states and our municipalities can be far more adept at the retail level than the federal government. Sister city, sister county, and similar arrangements are guaranteed to have more local salience than something designed in Washington to fit all. We already have significant activity underway, especially in agriculture.
This new phase in the South and East China Seas calls for a new, broader, stronger, approach. It’s no longer just “fly, sail and operate” with military and naval forces, although that is the foundation. It’s protein and energy for growing populations in all of Asia. The challenge moves to new levels and we must move with it—or preferably ahead of it. Within a framework of undoubted deterrent capability, we must counter “grey zone” challenges with compelling strategies to enhance the common welfare of all affected nations. We must make the “global commons” real. It must be an offer no nation can refuse. Our active leadership must be brought to the building of support across many diverse interests.
Wallace C. Gregson is a retired Marine, former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs 2009–11, currently senior advisor at Avascent International and senior director for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest.
Image: A Vietnamese fishing boat. Flickr/Dennis Jarvis