Tribunal Rules: China's South Sea Claims Don't Hold Water

July 12, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: South China SeaDefenseChinaPhilippinesThe Hague

Tribunal Rules: China's South Sea Claims Don't Hold Water

The law says what we always knew: China is overstepping in the South China Sea.

The Solution

As storm clouds gather over the South China Sea, strong, effective U.S. leadership is needed to address China’s Third Sea Force and its possible use in forthcoming Chinese nonlegal activities to further its outstanding sovereignty claims. To that end—as part of a much broader set of communications, preparations and activities including engagement in robust Freedom of Navigation operations soon to support key aspects of the tribunal’s ruling— here’s what the United States needs to do.

Emphasize three principles:

1. China’s Maritime Militia is a military force—often in disguise.

2. China’s Maritime Militia forces do not deserve civilian protections in the event of conflict.

3. Uncovering the truth about China’s Maritime Militia is the best way to deter it.

And engage in four actions:

1. “Call out” China’s Maritime Militia in public and in conversations with PRC interlocutors.

2. Share information with countries at risk.

3. Make it clear that any elements that ignore repeated warnings by U.S. vessels to desist from disruptive activities will be treated as military-controlled and dealt with accordingly to ensure self-defense and unobstructed mission accomplishment.

4. Impose consequences for any use of Maritime Militia against U.S. vessels.

By engaging in proactive measures to deter Beijing from using its Third Sea Force in ways prohibited by international maritime law, Washington can help ensure that the rules-based order that the UN Tribunal just upheld remains resilient in practice. The award for doing so effectively will be priceless: an open, prosperous South China Sea that all are welcome to use legally without favor or fear.

Andrew S. Erickson is a professor of strategy at the Naval War College and an Associate in Research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. He runs and co-manages

Image: Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy and U.S. Navy Sailors during a search and rescue exercise​. Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet