US leaders should not be surprised at China’s vehemence toward US maritime operations in the South China Sea. Nor is this merely a passing phase in China’s rise. As the Chinese economy grows more and more dependent on seaborne commerce passing through the Strait of Malacca and as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy extends its seaward reach, Beijing will take an increasingly forceful approach to Southeast Asian affairs.
By no means is armed conflict inevitable, but Washington should expect Beijing to mount a persistent challenge. It may even try to recast the US-led maritime order in Asia to suit Chinese preferences. Stronger powers tend to push for legal interpretations favorable to themselves and they tend to get their way. Redefining its offshore “exclusive economic zone,” or EEZ, as sovereign waters would let China forbid many foreign naval activities in maritime Southeast Asia.
Beijing’s ambitions are no secret. Chinese law claims virtually the whole South China Sea as territorial waters. Recent harassment by Chinese vessels of two US survey ships operating in international waters — but within China’s EEZ, south of Hainan Province — is probably just the start of Sino-US wrangling over maritime law. If Beijing’s view wins out, the South China Sea will in effect become a Chinese lake, especially as the PLA Navy increases its capacity to put steel behind China’s maritime territorial claims.
The US can look to its own past to understand why China attaches such importance to the South China Sea. A century ago, with its own economic and military might on the rise, the US struck a prickly attitude toward outside intervention in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Washington increasingly sought to exclude not only Germany’s High Seas Fleet, but the world’s foremost navy, Great Britain’s Royal Navy, from nearby seas.
Why? Because US economic and strategic interests were at stake. The Spanish-American War left the US dominant in the Gulf and Caribbean while handing it its first naval base in Asia, namely the Philippines. To compound matters, engineers were digging a canal across the Central American Isthmus, promising to dramatically shorten the voyage to Asia from the US east coast.
The canal would also speed up maritime traffic between European imperial powers like the UK and Germany and their possessions in East Asia. Britain was entrenched at Chinese seaports like Hong Kong and colonial-era Port Edward. Germany wrested Kiaochow from the Qing Dynasty in 1897. Forward bases were necessary to support the cruises of fuel-thirsty ships. Consequently, the imperial powers coveted coaling stations along the new Caribbean sea route.
This would not do. US administrations used various tactics to shut the imperial powers out of US waters. Around 1900, Washington struck up a bargain with Britain under which the Royal Navy shut down its American fleet station. The administration of then-US president Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed an “international police power” to prevent European navies from seizing bases in Caribbean states that defaulted on their debts to European creditors.
Ideas about the sea provoke strong passions. Try telling an Indian his nation has no right to be No. 1 in the Indian Ocean, or calling the Persian Gulf “the Arabian Gulf” in front of an Iranian, and you’ll see what I mean. The same goes for China along its nautical frontiers. It’s almost a foregone conclusion then, that China is more determined than the US to shape events in the China seas.
The US must renew its political commitment to Asia while bolstering its naval posture. Otherwise, Washington will abdicate its maritime leadership.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island.
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