The Commons: Beijing's
Image Credit: Flickr (Das farbamt)

The Commons: Beijing's "Blue National Soil"


Is it true that the United States, India, and other outsiders harbor no territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea?

Not strictly.

That may be what official policy says, and the motives behind such self-denying statements are doubtless sincere. Washington and other stakeholders have no claims to land features, the waters immediately adjoining them, or the airspace above. But here’s the rub. Every seafaring nation has a territorial claim to regional waters and skies beyond the 12-nautical-mile limit prescribed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. These expanses belong to no one, and everyone.

Beijing defines offshore waters as “blue national soil.” If that’s more than a catchy phrase, it envisions exercising the absolute territorial sovereignty at sea that governments exercise within their land frontiers. It would reserve the right to infringe on freedom of navigation. (And yes, of course there are a few other outliers that make similar claims. But they’re too weak to pose more than a nuisance.) By custom and international covenant, the global commons belongs to no one. It is blue international soil, open to unfettered commercial and military use by all nations and off-limits to ownership by any.

The commons must remain the commons, lest the system of liberal trade and commerce collapse on itself. All nations have an interest in preventing any contender from fencing off parts of the maritime domain.

What can guardians of free navigation do about this challenge? Channeling Clausewitz, Sir Julian Corbett would describe this as a contest of negative object, an endeavor aimed at keeping an adversary from taking something. In wartime, negative aims bestow certain advantages on the defender, who mostly wants to frustrate his opponent. But the advantages of protecting the status quo are less pronounced in peacetime strategic competition. In fact, the initiative and passion probably go to the antagonist entertaining a positive aim—the antagonist intent on wresting something away. He has the incentive to amend or overturn what looks like an unjust state of affairs. Otherwise he would never have opened the struggle in the first place.

And perhaps most critically, it’s hard for custodians of the status quo to turn the tables, seizing the offensive in peacetime competition. Corbett proclaims that “true defensive” is not passive defense—parrying an enemy’s blows without seeking offensive action—but biding one’s time while awaiting a chance to strike. That idea is readily intelligible in wartime. A combatant waging “active defense” looks for opportunities to use his forces to land a heavy counterpunch. The process isn’t so straightforward in peace. If Beijing keeps asserting title to the waters and airspace within the nine-dashed line, for instance, and if it deploys ships and aircraft to uphold its claim, what precisely would be the equivalent to a wartime counterattack?

It will take some artistry. Persuading seagoing nations to make common cause would be immensely helpful from a diplomatic standpoint. Easier said than done, I know. Or, appealing to international tribunals would provide little immediate relief, since it’s doubtful Beijing would ever allow foreign magistrates to adjudicate the limits of Chinese sovereignty. Still, making the attempt would brand it an international scofflaw.

Reinvigorating and stepping up freedom-of-navigation operations in disputed waters would put steel behind the international community’s defiance while mounting a sustained presence on blue international soil. Multinational task forces could ply regional waters, ostentatiously conducting lawful functions—flight operations, underwater surveys—that Beijing has tried to proscribe. In effect the seafaring states would dare China to take on the entire world.

And using the media creatively when encounters on the high seas turn ugly would help throw China on the defensive. Why not splash footage all over the Internet, social media, and other outlets the next time an Impeccable incident occurs, along with some helpful commentary to put the incident in perspective—depicting it as the affront to the common good that it is? The ghost of Corbett might smile.

Kim's Uncle
February 13, 2013 at 16:35

China is becoming more of a menace to the world order each and everyday! Countries bordering china are only too aware of her obnoxious behavior! China’s own government treat their people like dirt so therefore no one should expect Chinese commie government to treat her neighbors with any respect!

Kim Jong-Eun
December 21, 2013 at 22:50

The US is becoming more of a menace to the world order each and everyday! Countries bordering US are only too aware of her obnoxious behavior! US’s own government treat their people like dirt so therefore no one should expect American fascist government to treat her neighbors with any respect!

January 8, 2013 at 00:10

The SCS is what the Caribbean to the US. The US almost went to war when Russia deployed missiles in Cuba. The Chinese of course dont like foreign ships with nuclear missiles in the SCS. The Chinese may come up with their own version of the Monroe doctrine.

January 5, 2013 at 14:19

I thought Secretery Panetta invited the Chinese to the next RIMPAC (2014) when he visited Beijing last September.  As I recall, the US is waiting on a response.  

Chuck Hill
January 5, 2013 at 05:08

Sorry that is all the oil (and gas) and all the fish.

S.C Lai
January 4, 2013 at 23:20

The 9 dotted line was drawn by the Goamindang (China Nationalist party) when the entire  China was helmed by  them pre-1949,it's territory :Mainland included Tibet,Xinjiang,Mongolia,together with Taiwan,Dongsha,xisha n Nansha(Paracels and Spratly),though Goumingdang had retreated to Taiwan,it's constitution remains intact,The PRC who expelled ROC from mainland merely endorsed what was drawn by the former gov of China.To expect Chinese from both sides of the Taiwan strait to sit still while watching foreigners encroaching their "Ancestral Terriorities" are shear naive.

January 4, 2013 at 21:51

As far as commercial sea lanes are concerned, not only China access has never been denied by the US, China also has been benefitting from the security of these lanes being provided by the US Navy.
As far as access to the "deep blue" by Chinese subs, yes it is hindered without the control of the islets in the East Sea and the SCS, yes a different interpretation of sovereinty rights in the EEZ is important for China. This is the crux of the conflict. Oil, fish, sea lanes are just distractions.

January 4, 2013 at 18:53

Generally Mishmael has been fairly reasonable but this time his argument is lmited by a faulty premise from the very beginning.  You'll notice that Holme's piece is not "anti-China tirade" but instead an argument pointing out the flaws in China's claims to martime territory, and the threat that represents to any other country that expects to use those waters for sea travel and trade.  Lets be clear, China's approach to the South China Sea should be called what it is:  An aggressive territorial grab.
The rest of Mishmael's post is an illogical anti-American tirade inspired by CCTV and blind Chinese nationalism and doesn't deserve to be addressed. 

talking points
January 4, 2013 at 11:45

China has repeatedly said, its claims inside 9 dotted line are land features, not the sea.

Leonard R.
January 4, 2013 at 11:09

@Professor Holmes: "Corbett proclaims that “true defensive” is not passive defense—parrying an enemy’s blows without seeking offensive action—but biding one’s time while awaiting a chance to strike. "

I would add to that, putting yourself in a position for the best possible strike. Reinforcing combat assets, acquiring new operational positions, I hope that is what the US is doing now. Beijing is doing exactly that with its territorial grabs. 
The actual war between China and the US started long ago. Today the combatants are establishing their positions. It won't be long IMO, before shooting starts. I've always said it will start near the Philippines. Senkakus notwithstanding, my prediction hasn't changed. The PLAN isn't so stupid as to attack the Indian Navy or the Japanese Navy head-on. It already has been stupid enough to grab territory along Manila's coastline. And that will be ground zero. 

December 17, 2013 at 09:06

That’s the reason PRC deployed its aircraft carrier to the South China Sea after the US and Japan ignored its ECS ADIZ. Obviously any attempt to intimidate Japan and the US wasn’t working so they had to salvage their ego by showing force to the Phillipines.

January 4, 2013 at 10:13

Also for those on this thread and any other that I read making comments about the "Senkaku's" jesus christ. Look at google maps or google images.
The Senkaku islands are a bunch of DESOLATE ROCKS.
Nobody is deploying ANYTHING there and the fact that China is making a hissy fit over a pile of rocks just demonstrates how much of a big and respectable nation it is….

January 4, 2013 at 10:11

I was under the impression that international waters are international waters. As defined by a 12km or 12 mile limit from shore and thats it? Or something along those lines.
If the South China Sea in its entirity or significantly parts of it falls outside that limit then China and no other has any claim. Thats the law and has been agreed upon and practiced by the majority of sane nations for long enough that its well understood.
Anybody seeking to challenge that is the one making trouble. Anything else anybody has written is just wasted type space. International waters are international waters. Thats it. Nothing else to be said.

January 4, 2013 at 08:23

containment? perhaps, but this idea that somehow, China is being restricted in terms of access to the south and east China seas is blatantly false; as you said, the majority of its trade is in that area, and China has more access than any other nation, especially as it has been planting military garrisons on any major geographical feature that it can seize without major confrontation in that area. China has every right to use the seas. it does not have the right to use them to create a military fortress with which to keep others out, nor to seize territory in disputes that should be resolved in the international court.

Chuck Hill
January 4, 2013 at 06:38

And of course if they can claim everything inside the "Nine Dash Line" they get to keep all the lil and all the fish.

January 4, 2013 at 06:20

Interesting insight. Once the US has gained some level of objectivity vis a vis the other claimant nations and since the US is the de facto guarantor of peace in the region why not use US forces directly to defend specific allied territories? For instance why not deploy Marines to the Senkakus? Just like the CSG with international participation but less expensive and more decisively deterring future provocations. Also, if I'm not mistaken CSGs have made multiple trips through these areas with very little affect on China's willingness to up the ante with their claims. The goal must be to deter future provocations not just kick the same can down the same road towards conflict. What would've happened to South Korea if US forces were not present to deter aggression over the last half century? The same principle holds for other allied territories under threat of invasion even if it isn't on the same scale. Early, decisive reinforcement of South Korea probably would have prevented the Korean War. China is threatening these isolated islands percisely because they are isolated and not defended well. Defend and embrace them to keep the peace. US Marines are the most effective deterrence.

December 17, 2013 at 09:10

I agree. Look at Darwin in Australia for example, the US now has 2,500 Marines permanently based in Darwin and no-one has invaded Darwin for a while.

January 4, 2013 at 05:42

I'm curious. I have never found any article that showed Chinese access to the commons was denied, especially by the US. Can you please post some links that would help illuminate us?

Chuck Hill
January 4, 2013 at 05:00

I do expect that States led by China will attempt to reinterpret UNCLOS to apply the restrictions and requirements of innocent passage to the EEZ as well as the Territorial Sea. They may use Article 58 section 3 of UNCLOS, "In exercising their rights and performing their duties under this Convention in the exclusive economic zone, States shall have due regard to the rights and duties of the coastal State and shall comply with the laws and regulations adopted by the coastal State in accordance with the provisions of this Convention and other rules of international law in so far as they are not incompatible with this Part." They will interpret this to mean that anything other than expeditious transit including "spying," "hovering," flight ops, and submerged operations might be considered illegal. 

January 4, 2013 at 01:22

Here's the problem with Mr. Holmes' anti-China tirade:
The idea of a "commons" in international space is predicated upon an idea that all nations could have access to it equally, without legal prejudice. However, it is clearly obvious to the leaders and the people of China that such access is not accorded to them by the militant power of the United States and its allies, at least not without significant prejudice to their activities there.
If the United States is pursuing a blatant strategy of containment, which seeks to deny to China the use of the commons without significant security liabilities, then it is fully understandable that China would not take the self-serving idea of a "commons" seriously. It is up to the US and its cronies to demonstrate a truly peaceful regime of maritime "commons" usage, including such significant actions as creating truely international management and protection of international space (in pace of US hegemony) and less significant actions like ending petty slights (such as not inviting China to RIMPAC).
Mr. Hole's also conviniently ignores the fact that China is a major user of international maritime space for commercial activity, doing perhaps more trade than the US. Therefore it is a complete fabrication to insinuate that China would somehow choke off commercial activity by an active assertion of its rights. China is more invested in the international system of trade than the US, and it would be better protected by China's active security involvement. China is as much a "guardian of navigation" as the US and it has the record of not having ever conducted blockade activity to prove it.
Finally there are natrual resources in the SCS which can and should be developed. I do not see how "the commons" can be applied to material goods which can be extracted and sold without developing the infamous "tragedy f the commons."

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