Think Again: Myths and Myopia about the South China Sea

October 16, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: South China SeaChinaDefense

Think Again: Myths and Myopia about the South China Sea

The "chessboard metaphor" won’t help us understand the game China is playing.

Second, the risk of a direct conflict between Washington and Beijing exists even without U.S. support for its allies and partners in the region. The territorial dispute in the South China Sea represents just the tip of the iceberg; buried under the surface is a more strategic competition for supremacy in the Western Pacific. China and the United States are the two major contestants in this competition, though other nations including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and India also have significant roles to play.

Having no permanent presence in the South China Sea and with a home base far away, the United States has to rely on Vietnam, the Philippines and to a lesser extent Malaysia to keep the regional balance of power from tilting too far in favor of China. In this regard, American and Southeast Asian interests are complementary rather than conflicting. Helping allies and partners is also an economic way to serve U.S. interests in the region. The real question here is not whether, but how America should support its allies and partners in the South China Sea. There are multiple options to consider in addressing this question, and a direct Sino-American conflict is a risk to prevent, not a logical consequence of U.S. support for allies and partners in conflict with China.

Freedom of Navigation and Regional Leadership

But why must the United States compete for supremacy in the Western Pacific? The near-standard answer is that America has a national interest in freedom of navigation and U.S. military supremacy in these waters is the best guarantee for that. I think this answer has flaws, but not for the reasons offered by Goldstein. First, although the United States has an important interest in the South China Sea, freedom of navigation is not the best term for this interest. Second, there is another reason for the United States to compete for supremacy in the Western Pacific. Let me explain.

The term “freedom of navigation” is a bad choice of words. Its meaning varies according to the legal position or the national perspective you take. What is at stake here is not so much freedom of navigation as an actual situation, but the right of free access to the waters and skies in this crowded area. There is a crucial difference between Chinese and U.S. commitments to “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. This difference stems from the fundamental fact that while the United States upholds the notion of the global commons, China cherishes the idea of the “nine-dash line.” With this idea, Beijing considers the domain indicated by the “nine-dash line” as something like a sovereign realm it has lost to others and it is entitled to get back. China and the United States may share the same view when it comes to nautical freedom in most maritime areas on earth, but the South China Sea is a special case because of the “nine-dash line.” While Washington acknowledges the right of everyone, even its enemies, to freely access the waters and skies in this region, Beijing reserves the right to itself. When China says it guarantees freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the tacit understanding is that as a benevolent power, it opens its gates to everybody, but others must respect its sovereignty.

China is far from being able to control all the “gates” along the “nine-dash line,” and even if it can do so, it will not close these “gates.” After all, China has an enormous vested interest in keeping the flow of commerce through the South China Sea unimpeded. The threat posed by China to freedom of navigation and overflight in this area affects the normative basis of this freedom more than the practical situation. If the Chinese Navy becomes the custodian of nautical freedom in these waters, most vessels, most of the time, can still sail through them unhindered, but that is not because nations enjoy the objective right of free access, but because they enjoy China’s subjective benevolence, which at times can be selective and arbitrary. This subtle detail may not be important for insurance and shipping companies, but it will have far-reaching consequences for world politics. It means that in the regional order underwritten by China international law must yield to Chinese policy.

Even if China will behave the same as the United States does, Chinese supremacy in the East and South China Seas will still pose a grave threat to U.S. leadership in the region. The concentration in this domain of Asia’s chief arteries means that, to paraphrase Harold Mackinder, he who controls the East and South China Seas, dominates Asia; and with the rise of Asia, he who dominates this region, commands the world. For seventy years since the last days of World War II, U.S. naval supremacy in the Western Pacific has enabled Washington to play a leadership role in Asia. For its part, China has increasingly exhibited the conviction that its road to Asian primacy also runs through supremacy in these waters.

U.S.-China War

If a showdown between these two contenders cannot be avoided, who will defeat whom? I agree with Goldstein that the outcome of a U.S.-China war is highly uncertain. With all its advantages in technology, the United States suffers from enormous disadvantages in geography.


If the chance of a U.S. defeat is comparable to that of a Chinese defeat, Washington will have to rethink its grand strategy. Deterrence will be a very weak pillar in U.S. strategy. Washington must rely on balancing, not deterrence or mediation, as the primary ethos of its diplomacy and strategic planning. As war is both something that must be avoided and something that may not be won, U.S. strategic planning must shift focus from war to the gray zones between war and peace.

The United States may not need to use a lot of its high-tech gears either. What it needs to do more is to remedy its geographic disadvantages by playing the “game of encirclement” as skillfully as China does. It will need to help littoral states such as Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia to strengthen their defense capabilities, both military and nonmilitary, and to join forces in a strong coalition. Perhaps the biggest myth of all in relation to Asian security today is that the United States cannot and should not contain China.


Alexander L. Vuving is a Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect those of the DKI-APCSS, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. He tweets @Alex_Vuving.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy