Update: On October 27th (the day after this piece was published), the U.S. conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation in the South China Sea. The Department of Defense announced that it would be the first of a series of operations to challenge the sovereignty of China’s artificial islands.
“We will never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation.”
This was a Chinese official’s response to the U.S.’ statement that it would assert its right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. China has been building artificial islands near the Spratly Islands for years in an attempt to claim territorial sovereignty over the contested area. If the U.S. does not challenge these claims of sovereignty, then it could open the door for China to assert that all shipping passing through the South China Sea requires their approval.
To call the South China Sea an important transit route would be an understatement. 70 percent of the world’s total trade value is in maritime shipping, and about half of that passes through the South China Sea. Even though China claims the entirety of the sea as its territory with its infamous “nine dash line” map, it has largely followed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China has ratified UNCLOS and accepted it as its own law, but UNCLOS explicitly states that attempting to use artificial means to expand territorial claims is not permitted. China is in clear violation of the law by claiming sovereignty over the islands it has constructed in the middle of the South China Sea.
From the U.S. perspective, freedom of navigation is extremely important. Globally there are countless territorial claims that the U.S. does not recognize. Through “Freedom of Navigation Operations,” (FONOPS) the U.S. makes it clear that it will brook no threat to accessibility of international waters. These operations simply entail the U.S. Navy flying aircraft and sailing ships through contested territory, showing that they do not recognize the legitimacy of such claims. If the U.S. does not enforce freedom of navigation throughout the world, states may be more likely to deny access to disputed waters and create instability.
China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea has reaffirmed the importance of FONOPS. A Chinese official stated that there are “209 land features” that China could seize and build on. If China continues down this path and the U.S. does not challenge the sovereignty of these islands, then China would be able to have an uncontested claim over the Spratly Islands. This would also open the door for China to claim that the waters extending from its mainland to the islands (essentially all of the South China Sea) are its territorial waters. If such assertions went unanswered, then all traffic through the South China Sea would require China’s approval. The strategic implications of this are significant, especially when considering that U.S. allies (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea) are totally reliant on resources that are shipped through the South China Sea.
The Obama Administration has been slow to respond to the freedom of navigation issue. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has stated that,
“There should be no mistake: The United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world, and the South China Sea will not be an exception.”
However, that statement was made on October 13th, and the U.S. still has not taken any action to support this position. The longer China goes unchallenged, the more invested they become in the islands in both resources and rhetoric. Obama has waited so long to assert freedom of navigation that it has pushed China into a position where failing to respond to U.S. challenges would be a serious blow to their credibility. This creates an inherent risk of escalation, as the ability for China to back down gracefully lessens with each passing day.
The issue of the South China Sea also has much broader strategic implications. If the U.S.’ willingness to defend maritime security in far reaching areas is called into question, then it will invite other states to begin asserting the legitimacy of historic claims. A continued lackadaisical response on the part of America will detract from U.S. credibility, severely weakening our ability to influence other states through diplomacy. If America cannot credibly back claims that it will ensure the openness of sea lanes, it could result in a breakdown of international maritime norms.
While the situation in the South China Sea is serious, it is not a difficult one to address. Freedom of navigation is one of the few black and white areas of international law. Quickly and quietly moving forward with FONOPS is the obvious solution for America. This will signal to China that attempts to circumvent international law on the high seas is not a viable strategy. The worst response is to do nothing, which would legitimize China’s actions. Until the U.S. has successfully conducted its FONOP, China’s position will only become more confrontational. America’s apathetic response, which was presumably to avoid increasing tensions with China, has only resulted in raising the stakes. Continued ambiguity and unsupported rhetoric from the U.S. will only make the situation more dangerous, sowing the seeds for conflict in the highly contested region.