Earlier this month,I took part in the Fourth Annual Symposium on Sino-American Political-Military Relations, a gathering held at my alma mater, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Organized by an enterprising group of Tufts undergraduates, the event featured a number of subregional panels, starting with ‘China and the South China Sea.’ One of the Southeast Asia panellists, a seasoned China scholar, insisted that conflicting maritime territorial claims and interpretations of the law of the sea can’t be the only factor souring relations in the South China Sea.
Something else has set the United States and China at odds. Specifically, he questioned why the United States believes it must remain a ‘regional naval hegemon’ at China’s maritime door long after the Cold War subsided. Protecting freedom of navigation can’t be the prime mover for such an expansive, arduous policy. Nor is it sufficient justification for a forward presence that China finds unduly intrusive. This is especially true since—he insisted—China has never threatened freedom of navigation. In effect,he accused the United States of false consciousness, opining that successive administrations have grown so ‘habituated to a dominant role in the maritime domain’ that they have lost sight of the nation’s true interests.
The upshot: contact between established and rising empires is striking sparks in maritime Asia. Power, not law, is the real culprit. Should it regain sight of its interests, he concluded, Washington ought to recall that President Franklin Roosevelt foresaw entrusting regional security to ‘Four Policemen’ following World War II.
This ‘trusteeship of the powerful’—an idea FDR may have gleaned from his distant cousin Theodore, who decades before had claimed an ‘international police power’ for the advanced nations and whose career Franklin emulated in many respects—would deploy physical might to keep the peace. Each trustee would police its own geographic environs. FDR numbered China among these four great powers. The others were the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain– the nations that had best weathered World War II.
Once it got back on its feet following decades of internal strife and foreign invasion, China would manage East Asian affairs in the interest of security and stability. The Four Policemen concept metamorphosed into the UN Security Council with the addition of a fifth great power, liberated France. Our interlocutor suggested that China should at last take up the mantle of regional policeman, assuming primary responsibility for freedom of navigation in Southeast Asia. This would fulfil FDR’s vision while easing the burden on the US Navy, the steward of freedom of the seas since 1945. This is an appealing vision of an enlightened Asian maritime order managed by the region’s historic leading power. But is an Asia overseen by Beijing an Asia seafaring states would like to inhabit?
I have my doubts. To forecast whether China would make an upright regional constable, let’s ask what functions police forces perform in the domestic setting. A layman’s definition might be that a policeman deploys limited force at the behest of legitimate authority to protect citizens from lawbreakers, preserve the system of law and order as it currently stands, and generally foster the health and welfare of the populace. He abjures self-interest. By contrast, a crooked cop abuses the citizenry, misuses his position for private gain, or subverts the system to advance some political agenda; think machine politics in nineteenth-century America. The basic question: if the United States ceded primary responsibility for free navigation to China, would Beijing preserve the system of free navigation or modify it in Chinese interests?
The evidence points to the latter. It’s not strictly true that China has never threatened freedom of navigation within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the maritime belt extending some 200 nautical miles offshore. Under the law of the sea, coastal states enjoy exclusive rights to exploit natural resources in the seabed or the water itself. Apart from resource extraction, there are no restrictions on foreign maritime activities in the EEZ. Military surveillance, aircraft-carrier flight operations, and the like are clearly lawful—as Chinese specialists grudgingly admit when pressed. Nonetheless, Beijing has taken to interpreting its prerogatives in the EEZ as though these waters were territorial seas, where the coastal state enjoys absolute sovereignty and can proscribe military activities.
Accordingly, Chinese spokesmen grant that foreign ships and aircraft have the right of 'innocent passage' through China’s EEZs—the term used for crossing through the territorial sea without conducting military activities that infringe on the interests of the coastal state—but not the right of free navigation in these waters. This is a distinction with a difference. It goes far toward explaining the 2001 collision between a US EP-3 surveillance plane, the 2009 “harassment of USNS Impeccable, and regular close encounters between Chinese and US aircraft in the skies over the Asian seas. Hence Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ declarationin Hanoi last Octoberthat the United States ‘has always exercised our rights and supported the rights of others to transit through, and operate in, international waters’ (my emphasis).
Considering its effort to tacitly rewrite the law of the sea, should we conclude Beijing would make a worthy keeper of law and order, in the South China Sea or other expanses? Would a Chinese cop enforce the traditional understanding of the law of the sea or substitute its own version should the US Navy stand down in Asia? China has already cast itself as the arbiter of maritime endeavours in the South China Sea, even while a stronger sea power remains in regional seas to oppose its claims. To expect Beijing to reverse objectionable practices once it gains a dominant position seems farfetched. Sounds like a bad cop to me.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.