South China Sea Is No Black Sea
Image Credit: US Navy

South China Sea Is No Black Sea


A couple of months back, writing in Foreign Policy, my colleague Prof. Lyle Goldstein likened the South China Sea today to the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. In a nutshell, he maintains that the United States unwisely staked its prestige on a weak, remote, strategically third-rate ally adjoining a far stronger nation that coveted its territory and its political subservience. The Bush administration had ‘showered’ Tbilisi with ‘high-level attention and military advisors,’ only to utter barely a ‘whimper’ when Moscow ordered armoured forces to crush the Georgian military and occupy much of the country. The United States’ credibility took a beating when it couldn’t reverse the outcome. Siding with a vastly outclassed Georgia was a clear loser as far as foreign policy ventures go.

Lyle paints a doleful picture. If US leaders heed his advice, they should shed most commitments in Southeast Asia, which he portrays as a region of trivial importance situated adjacent to an increasingly powerful China. He maintains that ‘Southeast Asia matters not a whit in the global balance of power.’ Otherwise, Washington risks a new diplomatic setback for no conceivable gain. Just as the Bush administration had ‘no appetite for risking a wider conflict with Moscow over a country of marginal strategic interest,’ the Obama administration will not—indeed, must not—tether its fortunes to weak Southeast Asian states. This adds up to a warning against supporting friendly yet ‘unimportant’ states fighting at an impossible disadvantage. The United States should abjure vain efforts to reverse facts already established on the ground. Better to shed needless entanglements while working with Beijing to combat piracy and terrorism in the region, in hopes of building a trustful relationship at sea.

If this were a straightforward entreaty for Washington to avoid getting embroiled in the intricate maritime territorial disputes roiling regional politics, I would second it unreservedly. As we Southerners say, the United States has no ‘dog in the fight’ over who controls which island, atoll, or rock, provided the power that does control them respects navigational freedoms enshrined in customary and treaty law. Accordingly, a standard talking point among US officials is that the United States’ only interests in the controversy are upholding free navigation through regional waters and seeing quarrels over territory settled without resort to arms.

But it’s far from clear that China will respect the law of the sea or refrain from using force. It has repeatedly proclaimed ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over international waters and airspace within certain lines on the map of the South China Sea. It has sought to proscribe activities such as flight operations, military surveillance, and military surveys within select parts of the global ‘commons’, much as coastal states may do in their ‘territorial seas.’ The territorial sea is a 12 mile belt of sea just offshore where the coastal-state government exercises complete jurisdiction. It’s not coastal states’ gift to rule the waters beyond, even though international law grants them exclusive jurisdiction over natural resources in the water column and seabed up to 200 miles offshore (farther if the underwater geography warrants). Washington is entirely correct to resist creeping Chinese encroachment on the rights of seafaring states.

The Black Sea analogy changes none of this, largely because the dynamics there were quite different from those prevailing in the South China Sea today. To my mind, a situation must pass three tests for the Russo-Georgian analogy to fit. First, it must pit a strong power against a weak power of peripheral interest to the United States. Second, the mismatch in military power must be so stifling that the stronger party can stage a fait accompli, overpowering the weaker contender before the United States and the international community can muster the resolve and physical might to intervene. And third, the distance separating US forces from the theatre of conflict must be so great that Washington cannot deploy forces in time to make a difference. US forces would lack forward bases for staging and sustaining assets near the scene of combat. Happily, the South China Sea meets none of these tests especially well.

First, consider the disparity of power between China and its smaller neighbours. It’s certainly true that China outmatches any Southeast Asia state in a one-to-one competition, and by a large margin. The Philippine government, for example, has pledged to double its defence budget—to all of $2.5 billion. The US Navy will spend about that sum on its next Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer. By contrast, China spent $91.5 billion this year according to official—and likely lowballed—figures. That’s over 36 times the Philippine budget. Another data point: the US Coast Guard recently transferred a 1967-vintage Hamilton-class cutter to the Philippines. This elderly law enforcement ship became the pride of the Philippine Navy, replacing a destroyer escort built for the US Navy in World War II. This speaks volumes about Manila’s weakness at sea. Small wonder Philippine leaders have invoked the US-Philippine mutual defence pact in hopes of coaxing Washington to support their maritime territorial claims. They need the help.

August 29, 2012 at 21:56

Let us not unleash our pro Obama election rehtoric upon the Diplomatic issues.
Let us not fancy the unachievable, gone are the days when nations surrendered to hegamony.
Any further USA should reform & bear common sense rather than acting like a bluffing bully.
China is a reality, the emerged Global Super Power & needless to say but the US dream of "New World Order" is shattered to pieces. 
Citzens of the World say "Enough is Enough".

Moira G Gallaga
May 4, 2012 at 14:42

A must-read article on sovereignty issues in South China Sea. Why it is of strategic importance to the U.S. and why the Philippines’ and Southeast Asian countries’ interests on this issue coincides with U.S. strategic interests vis-a-vis China’s actions and intentions in the area.

Da Truth
April 30, 2012 at 13:09

You are such a LIAR. First of all STOP telling LIES about my Mongolian ancestors. The Mughal Empire, the last Indian Monarchy to rule the Indian subcontinent, lasted from 1524-1857. That is AT MOST 331 years. Your claim of 1,200 years is not even close to being true.

Indian culture has a history of dominance in East and South East Asia. However this has more to do with her cultural magnificence than her military dominance of South East Asia. For even when India’s cultural missionaries and trade routes ventured in South East Asia. China’s was more economically dominant and pervasive.

You are right China could not survive being the most invaded country in history ever again. She could not win a war with the combined ASEAN, Indian and US forces. Nor would she want to.

The basic point is that China does not have to attack ANY of the ASEAN bloc. All she has to do is continue on her current path of building and deploying large quantities of vessels and artificial marine stations across the South China Sea. She will dominate the area not by force of arms, but the size of her fleets-both commercial and military. This is one reason why China will deploy more and more carriers into the South China Sea. Engagement is not the goal nor the answer. Sheer existence to be and thrive economically will ensure Chinese dominance in the region as it has for thousands of years in the past. Her South China Sea will be the Gulf of Mexico to the United States.

thu nguyen
December 26, 2011 at 10:05

Our history suggests multiple times that even the if our governments surrender, it will never be the end of the matter. If we are not strong enough to win the war, we may run or surrender initially, but we will strike back until the conquering army realizes that it doesn’t worth it. You can beat us but you CANNOT keep us with you ;)) We’re like a horse that sometimes PRETENDS to be broken;))

November 11, 2011 at 00:18

Moghuls were just “one” of the many empires that existed on the Indian subcontinent.

As to Short lived, that is a matter of debate . The Moghul empire lasted 1200 years. That is 3 times longer than the Romans.

Also, South Indian kingdoms ruled much of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore for quite a long time deeply influencing and seeding culture to many of these islands. The name “Singapore” itself originates from Sanskrit.

Today, however, India is not likely to militarily enter into any “fight” in the South China Sea but it will definitely make sure that this sea is freely navigable and free for trade to flow through it. The Malacca Strait can be shut down completely in less than 24 hours by the Indian Navy if the Chinese try to close the South China Sea to trade. So the Chinese would never do anything to harm the flow of trade and neither would India in the Malacca Strait.

The Chinese will prevail over any country in South East Asia militarily individually. But a combined and unified South East Asia under ASEAN cannot be defeated by China. China will try all its tricks from bribery to threats to prevent ASEAN from getting united like the Euro-zone politically and militarily. India would like to see such a block coming up as it will serve both as a stabilizing force in the Indian ocean and as a buffer against the Chinese.

October 29, 2011 at 12:42

Not traitors but merely expats with no immediate plans to return. By the way, how’s all the people in the different ethnic enclaves in BC getting along? Nothing like a little competition perhaps to spur Canadians’ creative juices, n’est pas???

October 29, 2011 at 12:37

I agree to a certain extent but there are already rumblings in the USA with unemployment – see occupy Wall Street. Also if the middle class that’s being so devastated in the USA has no money then spending will decrease which in turn pulls the economy down. Also see US house prices which are still declining in some major US cities. The possible scenario is that the USA could have another decade of deflation like the Japanese did (the latter only pulled out of it because of China by the way).

Linh My
October 28, 2011 at 13:53


Thank you. As to your predictions about America’s future, who knows?

The 800 lb Gorilla is automation. A few years ago, the bottle water plant down the road, here in Viet Nam automated it’s processing/bottling plant and fired roughly 400 of their 500 employes. Operating coasts are way down. Product quality is way up.

China and a lot of other Countries economic successes have largely happened because their people labor was cheaper than automated machinery. Automated machinery is a lot more efficient and cheaper per unit of output these days. During this downturn, American companies have been spending money on automation rather than hiring workers. I suspect that American society will more or less be able to deal with this. China and the other cheap labor countries . . .

October 28, 2011 at 11:08

@The_Observer: That’s good for USA. One less family of traitors to worry about.

October 28, 2011 at 09:51

@ LinhMy – nicely done.

Linh My
October 27, 2011 at 12:26

Wars and most other conflicts are not won by the most intelligent. They are won by those who make the least number of absolutely stupid mistakes. I hope that you moved somewhere that makes fewer stupid mistakes than America does. Forcing the rest of Asia into a war over the East etc. Sea would most likely be a non survivable mistake for China. Even as a negotiating ploy, I think it a bad mistake.

And Europe is doing so well??? I maintain two homes, one in America and one in Viet Nam. Mostly, I live in Viet Nam these days.

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