It’s increasingly clear that Beijing may have misinterpreted a relatively passive but definitely welcoming set of international reactions to China’s rise. And the combination of China’s aggressive naval actions and maritime territorial claims suggests an alarming indicator: Chinese assertiveness over its region is growing as fast as China’s wealth and perceived power trajectory. Beijing’s unwelcome intent appears to give notice that China is opting out of the Global Commons, and that the Western Pacific is not to be accessible to all, but instead increasingly part of China’s exclusive sphere of influence.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in China’s attitude over the South China Sea, which recently has been defined as a ‘core interest’—the same phrase Chinese use to refer to Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang. In the process, China is in effect dismissing the international concept of the Global Commons, which refers to the maritime, air, space and cyberspace domains that comprise the circulatory system of our globalized world. Because the Global Commons hold together the international world order based on near-uncontested access, the rule of law and freedom of manoeuvre, China’s challenging of these principles puts it at direct odds with the United States.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Indeed, China seems to regard the maritime global commons in a proprietary fashion. For a given area, the Chinese wish either to dominate it or for others to stay away; in effect, in the Chinese view, there’s no ‘commons.’ China calling the South China Sea a ‘core concern’ is an attempt to place clear, Chinese-declared limits on the ability of the international community to assert its rights under international law.
China has two types of arbitrary claims: an assertion that China’s territorial seas extend into much of the South China Sea and the more recent claim that they have the right to control navigation and research activities, not just fishing and seabed resources, within their Exclusive Economic Zones. If not challenged, China’s assertive incrementalism has international legal risks, since international law is built on norms.
In contrast, long-standing US diplomatic and military doctrine has been explicit that navies—including China’s—have every right to operate on the high seas, even including in the territorial waters of other states. In support of this doctrine, Washington has attempted to establish a strong and open dialogue with the Chinese military. China, on the other hand, sees US operations inside the first island chain as impinging on its sovereignty, just as it has a very expansive interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as to its authority within its own (and contested) Exclusive Economic Zones. China’s combination of its international legal strategies with naval force is telling: unlike the other claimants to the South China Sea, China backs up its words with military force.