James Holmes

A Bold Stand in the South China Sea

How recent events are testing an old concept —whether might makes right.

In the Q&A session following my lecture in Paris, a gentleman from the Chinese Embassy asked whether the United States—by pushing for a negotiated settlement to the maritime territorial disputes roiling the South China Sea—is encouraging weak Southeast Asian countries to take stances they might not otherwise take in the face of overwhelming Chinese power. Implication: Washington has made itself a silent partner of the Philippines, Vietnam, and other claimants. I allowed that yes, American diplomacy might be emboldening them. That seemed to please him.

But I hastened to add that it’s a good thing if Manila, Hanoi & Co. feel confident enough to stand up for what is clearly theirs. That didn’t please him at all.

I have come to believe we are testing a proposition in the South China Sea—whether might makes right. The maritime territorial claims fall into two classes. Scarborough Shoal, Mischief Reef, and the “oil blocks” off Vietnam are utterly clear. Like all coastal states, the Philippines and Vietnam exercise complete jurisdiction over natural resources in the waters and seabed within 200 nautical miles of their shores. These disputed geographic features fall under their jurisdiction notwithstanding squishy, and lamentably commonplace, press reports indicating that Manila and Hanoi “regard” (or “consider,” or “claim”) them as part of their exclusive economic zones. They regard them as such because they are.

It’s very easy. Get out a map. Take a compass, set the diameter to 200 nautical miles, place one end on the west coast of Luzon, and swing a circle out into the South China Sea. You will notice that Scarborough Shoal lies well within your circle. Repeat the procedure for western Palawan, and you get the same result for Mischief Reef. The same goes for the sectors of the Vietnamese EEZ where Beijing wants to auction off oil exploration rights. In short, Beijing is deploying superior power in an effort to repeal basic geometry and clearly written treaty law. Learn to love Big Brother, Southeast Asia.

True, Vietnam recently passed a law reaffirming its claim to sovereignty over the Spratlys and Paracels, which lie amid the South China Sea and belong to the second, more ambiguous category. But even if we interpret Hanoi’s actions in the worst possible light, it is simply refusing to ratify the results of a 1974 naval battle in which Chinese forces pummeled a South Vietnamese flotilla and grabbed the Paracels. It rejects a status quo imposed by force.

If U.S. intervention fosters negotiations over the status of the archipelagoes while heartening coastal states to defend the plain language of the law of the sea, The Naval Diplomat says: so be it.