Interviews | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Gregory Poling on the Deep History of US Involvement in the South China Sea

“The United States has had national interests at stake in the South China Sea for as long as the disputes have existed.”

Gregory Poling on the Deep History of US Involvement in the South China Sea

The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits the South China Sea on March 2, 2017.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Z.A. Landers

Over the past decade and a half, the South China Sea has emerged as one of the world’s most perilous geopolitical flashpoints. With China asserting maximalist claims over nearly the entire waterway and most of its features, and backing them up with the deployments of coast guard and maritime militia vessels, the United States has attempted to rally a coalition of allies and partners that are concerned about Beijing’s maneuvers.

However, the U.S. history with the South China Sea long predates China’s recent maneuvers. As Gregory Poling notes in his new book, “On Dangerous Ground: America’s Century in the South China Sea,” Washington’s interest in the waterway dates back to the early part of last century, and is foreshadowed by a commitment to freedom of the seas with its roots in the early 1800s.

Poling, the director of the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, spoke with The Diplomat about the U.S.’ long backstory in the South China Sea, the evolution of its approach to the current maritime dispute, and how it can best craft a response to China’s recent power plays.

For the past decade and a half, the South China Sea has become a subject of increasing interest and concern in U.S. policymaking circles, due to China’s expansive claims over both the waterway and the bulk of the features within it. But your book shows that the U.S. attention toward the South China Sea is nothing new. When did officials in Washington first start paying serious attention to the South China Sea, and do you seen any parallels with how it is approaching the region today?

The United States has had national interests at stake in the South China Sea for as long as the disputes have existed. There are two historical threads that weave throughout that story. The first is the U.S. desire to uphold alliance commitments while remaining neutral on highly debatable sovereignty claims. The second is a deeply held commitment to freedom of the seas, which is one of the most abiding foreign policy interests in U.S. history (see, for instance, Thomas Jefferson dispatching two fleets against the Barbary States).

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The first U.S. statement of concern regarding the South China Sea came from Secretary of War William Howard Taft in 1907 who was concerned that a Japanese claim to Pratas Reef off the coast of China could threaten U.S. forces in the Philippines. In the lead-up to World War II, the U.S. stayed neutral on sovereignty claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands but objected when Japan strayed beyond the boundaries of accepted international law. Of course there was one exception to this U.S. neutrality: Scarborough Shoal, which Washington concluded was U.S. territory transferred from Spain to the United States by the 1900 Treaty of Washington which amended the 1898 Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish-American War.

From the end of World War II until 1975, all of the occupants of the Spratlys – France, the Republic of Vietnam, the Philippines, and the Republic of China – were U.S. allies, which meant neutrality took precedence. But after the fall of Saigon and the capture of RVN bases in the Spratlys by North Vietnamese forces, the Philippine government made continued U.S. basing contingent on the credibility of U.S. defense commitments in the South China Sea. By 1979, the Washington had agreed (with some creative ambiguities).

The other major U.S. interest, defense of freedom of the seas, wasn’t a major issue in the in the South China Sea until the 1990s. That is when the governments of Taiwan and China both began toying with a more expansive claim to not only the islands but all the waters, seabed, and airspace within the “U-shaped line” or “nine-dashed line.” Taipei eventually thought better of it, but Beijing baked a claim to “historic rights” throughout the South China Sea into its 1998 Law on the Exclusive Economic Zone. And from that point on, Washington has had two consistent talking points: it will never accept restrictions on legally-guaranteed freedom of the seas in the South China Sea, nor will it accept any resolution of the territorial disputes by violence directed against its ally the Philippines (or any of its non-allied partners in Southeast Asia). Those positions haven’t changed; they’ve just moved from the back burner to the forefront of U.S. policy in Asia as a result of China’s increasing militarization and coercion over the last decade or so.

You point out the important distinction between the territorial disputes concerning specific reefs and islands in the South China Sea, which have stretched through the 20th century, and the more recent maritime dispute over the waters as a whole. When did the maritime disputes over the South China Sea begin to take shape, and how has the U.S. approach toward them changed in recent years?

The book traces the evolution of both the territorial and maritime disputes from their inception, along with what the U.S. had to say about them at each step. The first Chinese annexations of the Pratas and Paracels came in 1909 as reactions to Japanese interest, but then China quickly lost interest amid the turmoil that followed the collapse of the Qing. The territorial disputes really began taking shape in the 1920s and 1930s via competing claims by France, the ROC, and Japan. That was left unsettled by the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. Over the ensuing decades there was a lot of interest, formal claims, and ultimately occupations, which eventually led to the territorial status quo we have today. And throughout it all the U.S. position was fairly consistent, if often distracted.

The maritime disputes evolved in parallel to the territorial disputes, but really weren’t as salient until the 1990s. The first seeds were planted by Bai Meichu, a Chinese cartographer, who slapped a line around all the rocks, reefs, and islands he saw on some old British navigational charts that he thought the ROC should one day claim. Bill Hayton has done an excellent job telling that story in greater detail. Bai’s “U-shaped line” was eventually codified by the ROC in 1947 as a claim to the islands within it. And that’s what it remained until the 1990s. In the meantime, there was a decades-long effort to codify maritime law in reaction to the growing technological changes opening the oceans to human activity, as well as the decolonization of new countries uninterested in adopting European notions of customary law. That process, which is detailed in two chapters of the book that provide a bit of a respite from the South China Sea narrative, eventually led to the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). And China’s decision by the late 1990s that it no longer wanted to follow those rules it helped write led to the maritime disputes of today.

Your book argues that the evolution of U.S. maritime policy and its contributions to the creation of international maritime law (i.e. UNCLOS) are important to understanding the evolution of its approach to the South China Sea. What primary considerations that shaped this evolution, and how has this shaped the current American approach to the maximalist Chinese claims over the South China Sea ?

In many ways, the early United States was even more committed to the European doctrine of the mare liberum, or free seas, than most European states. The United States was actually the first country to formalize the old 3-nautical-mile territorial sea in domestic legislation. This is because the Republic was highly dependent on maritime trade while having limited means to defend its interests at sea. Then as now, international law was seen as an equalizer and the best refuge of weaker states.

When other states, particularly in Latin America as well as the Soviet Union, began to challenge the European consensus on maritime law in the early twentieth century, the United States at first tried to hold the line. But during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that commitment to free seas came into conflict with the president’s desire to secure U.S. access to seabed oil and gas that everyone knew technology would soon make it possible to access. This led to the Truman Proclamations (which Truman gets stuck with even though they were all FDR’s ideas), the most important of which laid claim to the continental shelf. And in a case of unintended consequences, those proclamations set off a chain reaction of new maritime claims around the world that went far beyond what the United States and other maritime powers were comfortable with.

It took decades to reach a new consensus, but when it finally emerged, the 1982 UNCLOS was the most ambitious and most widely accepted piece of international law since the U.N. Charter. Every claimant in the South China Sea except Brunei and Taiwan had a hand in crafting it, including China. Of course, the United States failed to ratify UNCLOS, walking away at the 11th hour because of ideological opposition to the new deep seabed mining regime included in the treaty. But in the decades since, the United States has consistently treated UNCLOS as embodying customary law – and international courts have generally agreed that is the case. Now, the United States defends freedom of the seas as codified by UNCLOS just as doggedly as it did the old regime of the 3-mile territorial sea and the mare liberum.

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You remark in your final chapter that U.S. policymakers “most often approached the South China Sea tactically rather than strategically.” Do you see signs of a cohesive strategy emerging, and if not, what have been the main shortcomings of Washington’s approach over the past 15-20 years? What do you think such a strategy would look like?

In one episode after another detailed in the book – late 1930s, 1956, 1974, 1988, 1995, 2012 – the U.S. government was caught flat-footed by crises in the South China Sea. That is because the disputes were never at the top of the list of priorities for U.S. policy in Asia. So leaders would have to scramble to figure out what prior U.S. policy had been and then try to implement it on the fly. That finally started to change in the last two years or so of the Obama administration when China’s island building campaign and threats against the United States and its allies and partners finally drove the South China Sea to the top of the priority list. But then Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines and squandered that country’s landmark arbitration win against China. And then Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and Washington struggled to effect coherent policy at all. Now, with new administration in both capitals and an emerging consensus in Europe, the Quad, and elsewhere about Chinese revisionism, I’m cautiously optimistic that a cohesive strategy is possible. But time is quickly running out, and China is in a much stronger position than it was in 2016.

A workable strategy for the U.S. to defend both its longstanding interests – alliance credibility and freedom of the seas – would need to run on two tracks. The first, more immediate, concern needs to be modernizing the U.S.-Philippines alliance and reestablishing deterrence, probably by rotating U.S. ground-based fires through Philippine bases under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement in order to hold Chinese vessels at risk, and help the Philippines do the same. That’s an asymmetric strategy that would recognize the truth—China now dominates the naval, air, missile, and electromagnetic spectrums in the South China Sea. If successful, that deterrence would buy time for the Philippines, with support from the U.S. and like-minded states, to use the 2016 arbitral award to rally international support, impose reputational and economic costs on Beijing for non-compliance, and eventually incentivize China to take an off-ramp: accept a compromise with the other claimants that everyone could live with.

One thing that the Chinese government and its supporters never tire of pointing out is the U.S. hypocrisy in calling on China to adhere to an international maritime treaty (UNCLOS) that the U.S. has not itself ratified. This obviously mirrors broader criticisms, made both by realist scholars and critics on the left, that the “rules-based order” is a mere euphemism for U.S. primacy. What is the current state of domestic politics on this question? Do you see any likelihood that the U.S. could ratify UNCLOS, as part of a broader strategy?

The Senate math is brutal for those hoping for U.S. ratification. The old opposition to UNCLOS under Reagan and Bush I was related to the seabed mining regime, but that was all effectively laid to rest during the renegotiation that led to the Implementing Agreement the United States signed in 1994. Now, there really isn’t a coherent objection on substance. It basically boils down to considering the words “United Nations” anathema and dog whistles about sovereignty.

The treaty last came up for consideration during the Obama administration, which in 2009 included it in the list of treaty priorities for the 111th Congress. Over the course of that Congress from 2009 to 2011, Democrats controlled between 57 and 60 seats. But they had other priorities. By the time the Foreign Relations Committee under John Kerry took up the treaty in 2012, the Democratic majority had shrunk to 53 seats. Kerry organized a series of hearings with military brass, industry, labor, environmental NGOs, and more, and support for ratification was nearly universal. But after an intense lobbying effort during an election year, ideological opponents managed to rally 34 Republican Senators to sign a letter promising not to support–just enough to block ratification. Democrats now have just 50 seats, and of the 14 Republicans who either supported or were undecided in 2012, only 3 remain in the Senate: Collins, Murkowski, and Graham. The rest have been replaced by more conservative successors. If you kept all the Democrats, and those three Republicans, you’d still need 14 more “yay” votes. And they don’t exist.