South China Sea: It’s About More Than Rocks


Security and prosperity have largely prevailed in the Asia-Pacific for the better part of the last seven decades. Today, however, the region is faced with the first major challenge to the very order that led to a secure and growing Asia. On the one hand, the United States is committed to preserving a long-standing alliance system, access to the air and maritime commons, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. One the other, China seeks to impose a new system that better supports its own view of China’s cultural and historical significance in the region.

Rather than a U.S.-led model, China is proposing a Sino-centric model where plurality is set to face raw power for sway over the region. While both the U.S. and China will probably weather the political, economic, and military storm that is brewing, it is less certain how the other countries in the region will fare.

In the years since the American alliance system was fashioned, after World War II, the U.S. has fought two wars in Asia to stop the spread of communism: Korea and Vietnam. While some argue that the Korean War was, at best, a draw and Vietnam was an outright failure it is important to look at how both countries are doing today.

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The Republic of Korea is a model for economic and political development. It has a vibrant democracy and the thirteenth largest economy in the world. Vietnam is rapidly liberalizing its economic system as it seeks to experience the rapid growth of the Asian Tigers. Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific, economies are growing, and the middle class is rising. The point of these examples is that the U.S. alliance system supports and reinforces the rights and uses of the air and maritime commons that supports such growth.

Militarily the United States and its allies and partners train together, exercise together, and at times patrol together – strengthening the existing bond and building trust. The sometimes loose and sometimes tight coordination seeks a common goal: an air and maritime environment that follows international rules and prevents coercive behavior. This is especially important in the congested environment in the South China Sea, where roughly 90 percent of the trade in the region transits.

The ability of nations to ship their exports at low insurance rates contributes to the rapid economic growth, and their ability to use the resources within their own exclusive economic zones (EEZ) helps increase the living standards of their populations. This concern for the value of the individual and each person’s well-being has not always been a value widely embraced across Asia, but it is one that was transmitted through American leadership in the region.

Although the U.S. has not ratified the United Nations Charter on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), it still upholds its provisions in order to offer a mechanism for the peaceful resolution of disputes over resources in the maritime domain. In a sense, UNCLOS provides for a Westphalian-like border system for the seas. A product of the Thirty Years’ War during which almost all of Europe was involved in conflict over borders, the Westphalian-system stresses non-interference within a nation’s borders. For all intents and purposes, UNCLOS defines the 200 mile limit from a major land feature as the “economic” border of a nation, and thus the territory of the country whose land mass it abuts.

In the South China Sea, China’s nine-dash line claim simultaneously chips away at all three pillars supporting the current regional order. Land claims that clearly flaunt UNCLOS EEZ lines; coercive efforts to assert those claims (like the 100 ship armada deployed to support the oil rig in Vietnam’s waters); and the refusal to acknowledge the Philippines International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) case all help illuminate what a Sino-centric regional order would look like.

It looks quite a bit like the current business environment in the PRC, where international firms are subject to seizure, unfair competition, and efforts to stifle growth at the expense of Chinese-owned firms. In essence, a Sino-centric order would be one where Chinese companies enjoyed the predominance of leverage in any negotiation, just as they currently do within China’s own borders. Thus, while the Asia-Pacific was able to avoid the Thirty Years’ War, a Sino-centric order that allowed for Chinese companies to gain the predominance of negotiating power would lead to economic inequality, and ultimately to conflict as Asia-Pacific nations sought equal treatment.

As President Xi Jinping said, the Pacific Ocean is big enough for both the U.S. and China. Yet, can the Pacific Ocean be made big enough for all the nations of the Asia-Pacific? This is the question that lies at the heart of the current friction in the South China Sea. Will it be the order that has prevailed for the last 70 years where stable alliances remain, maritime rights are enforced, and disputes are resolved peacefully; or will it be a new order where China dominates and tangible preferences for Chinese firms carry the day? If the latter comes to pass, we will all rue the day that we watched complacently as China began building islets of Sinic power in the South China Sea.

Dr. Adam B. Lowther is a Research Professor at the Air Force Research Institute (AFRI) at Maxwell Air Force Base. He is the author of Americans and Asymmetric Warfare: Lebanon, Somalia, and Afghanistan and the editor of three additional books.

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