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.