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