A New Normal in the South China Sea?

Subi Reef, part of the Spratly Islands group, was the site of a United States operation designed to assert "freedom of navigation" in waters claimed by China. Subi Reef, South China Sea, September 1, 2015. (DigitalGlobe/Getty Images)

The United States’ decision to send a warship into South China Sea waters claimed by China made both literal and figurative waves earlier this week. There was nonetheless a great sense of inevitability to the move, with the US and its regional allies never likely to cede long-term control of the region’s commerce and strategic importance to Beijing, despite permitting much of its recent assertive behavior.

While so-called “freedom of navigation” missions are a relatively common US practice, the maneuver still represents an escalation of Washington’s challenge to Beijing’s recent activities in the area. This challenge was previously characterized by censuring China’s growing maritime claims and holding joint military exercises with allies, many of which declare rights over the same geographic features and waters as China.

It is also unlikely to be an isolated incident. Indeed, it has the potential to set a new pattern for the behavior of both countries within the region, and also of those many others that share it. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has already indicated that the US will not hesitate to repeat the tactic in the future. And China can be expected to respond in kind to each new incident, at least through the rhetoric of its state-run media, or symbolic gestures such as this week’s summoning of US Ambassador Max Baucus.

The great risk remains that this pattern of action and reaction might eventually escalate into conflict, as a top Chinese official acknowledged, or perhaps warned, yesterday. It might also decrease the will of Beijing and Washington to work together in a number of other areas, including dealing with the Chinese hacking of US companies, and attempts to reach a new global climate change deal at upcoming talks in Paris—though here at least the US may have figured correctly that China will not jeopardize its own significant national interest merely out of spite.

The core issue is that the dispute cannot be resolved through application of international law, since both countries interpret this in fundamentally different ways. The US claimed the transit of the destroyer USS Lassen past the Spratly Islands’ Subi Reef occurred in international waters. It thus challenged China’s exclusive maritime usage claims, which are based on what it says are centuries-old historic ties, and which it has attempted to bolster through artificial island-building in the region.

Both parties cite provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as being on their side in this respect. China has what appears a more legitimate right to do so, given that it has actually ratified the convention, while the US has not—though it does recognize it as customary international law.

Nonetheless, China’s claims over naturally occurring and artificially augmented land in the region are not internationally recognized, and thus do not confer it sovereignty over surrounding 12-nautical mile maritime territories—a perimeter through which the USS Lassen deliberately passed—or any 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones it might want to declare. While the international legal case against China was seemingly boosted today with a court in The Hague agreeing to hear claims filed by the Philippines in 2013, Beijing has refuted the institution’s jurisdiction and refused to participate in the proceedings.

There is a chance that China’s appeals to history and its embrace of a more expansive foreign policy may be tempered somewhat by the country’s increasingly sclerotic economy, which would seem to invite a return to present, domestic concerns. This could be evident in the announcement that Beijing will scrap its potentially economically damaging one-child policy. The Thursday timing of that unveiling was possibly even brought forward for convenience, seeing as it instantly changed the narrative and may help to placate a population otherwise awaiting a more forceful response to the warship incident.

Still, in President Xi Jinping, China has one of its more nationalistic and historically influenced recent leaders. Xi has increasingly invoked not only the country’s ancient past, but also its more recent supposed victory over the imperialism of neighbor Japan, as seen in September’s hosting of a grand parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Under his leadership, it seems more likely that China will adopt what might be called the “Putin model” of attempting to distract from domestic economic concerns by targeting, and constructing if necessary, foreign threats.

Meanwhile, many in Washington will likely see Tuesday’s incident as a triumphant step in realizing the country’s strategic rebalance, or what used to be called the “pivot,” to Asia, particularly as it comes in the same month as agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 other Pacific Rim countries—not including China—which serves as the financial underpinning of future US policy in the region.

The US has certainly put the impetus on China to curb its ambitions for regional control or risk a future conflict it is likely still too weak to win. While the US has recently had trouble winning wars in increasingly complicated new theatres of conflict, it would likely still triumph with ease in any new clash of great powers, seeing as it maintains the advantage in “virtually every aspect of military hardware” and has been rapidly reaffirming its strong network of alliances in the region, usually at the request of governments concerned by Beijing’s threat.

Still, China does have some room to further agitate and test the limits of the US even if it is forced to allow more American ships to pass through what it claims to be its waters. Taking Washington at its word that the recent action is indeed about “freedom of navigation,” it might continue to militarize those areas of land it continues to control—despite questionable legitimacy—presenting the US and its allies another difficult choice on how to respond at some point in the future.

Meanwhile, the slow progress toward implementing a long-discussed code of conduct for the South China Sea between China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—which incorporates the other claimants to regional territory—may stop altogether. In any event, it was always a distant goal so long as China was unwilling to reconcile the differences between its own historical interpretations and those of international law and standards of behavior.

In addition to Secretary Carter’s promise of more US ships making the journey in the future, there have been indications that US allies such as Australia may themselves replicate the USS Lassen’s transit and establish a pattern of open navigation that may become the norm. These are clear indications that a corner has been turned in the regional strategy aimed at curbing China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. What the ultimate implications of this will be depend on how Beijing chooses to respond.

James Bowen is Assistant Editor of the Global Observatory.