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

September 29, 2015 Topic: Security Tags: South China SeaHistoryDefense

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 Sea altering, 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.

Nor has the U.S. cultivated the kind of ties with China that would allow Washington to happily cede influence to Beijing in the way that Britain ultimately relinquished maritime influence to the United States (first in the Caribbean and later in the Mediterranean). Britain and the U.S. were of a like mind when it came to governing the maritime commons, something decision-makers in London could be fairly sure of. By contrast, Chinese intentions are the subject of heated debate in the contemporary United States. For better or worse, conciliating China over the South China Sea would look like appeasement at home and abroad—it would antagonize America’s allies, embolden China, and cause great embarrassment in domestic politics.

The model that the United States seems to be being followed is Britain’s pivot to the Mediterranean in the 1890s and early 1900s, when Royal Navy squadrons were redeployed from the Caribbean and East Asia in order to counter the Franco-Russian rapprochement in European waters and later Germany’s growing naval might. This rebalance—essentially a move to prevent the balance of power in Europe from being upended—succeeded in extended British naval hegemony in European waters for several decades, and could be considered an early prototype of the Obama administration’s own “pivot” to Asia.

But Britain was only able to undertake its strategic rebalance to the Mediterranean (and North Sea) in tandem with strategic retrenchment elsewhere. In turn, this was only possible because the U.S. and Japan were only too eager to pick up the slack in the Western Hemisphere and East Asia: the United States Navy kept a watchful eye on the Caribbean, South America and the all-important Panama Canal, while Japan took on the burden of balancing against Russian (and later German) naval forces in the Asia-Pacific. Today, who can the United States rely upon to contribute to policing the global maritime system? Which friendly nation will maintain a serious naval presence in, say, the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf while the United States pivots to East Asia?

Overall, then, Kaplan might be right that the South China Sea is to Asia what the Mediterranean is to Europe and the Caribbean is to the Americas, but the comparisons only achieve so much.  Very few lessons can be gleaned from the British and U.S. experience of maintaining naval supremacy in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. A new approach to maritime order-building will be required, one that recognizes the strategic centrality of the South China Sea to Asian geopolitics but which is also commensurate with the current state of U.S. influence in the region.