In the silliness that often characterizes diplomatic discourse, Chinese vice-foreign minister Liu Zhenmin told Reuters on August 4th that China’s transformation of South China Sea shoals and reefs into armed islands “should not be discussed” at the August ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Why not? Because, said Liu, “this is a forum for promoting cooperation.” Correctly, the U.S. State Department answered that Chinese provocations should indeed be discussed. After all, how can international cooperation be furthered when China makes illegal sovereign claims over international waters that lie within the exclusive economic zones of its neighbors?
However, the Obama administration is unwilling to back up diplomacy with action. Senior U.S. naval commanders have sought permission to uphold freedom of navigation by sailing or flying close to these manmade islands that lie hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland—far from the 12 nautical miles that make up China’s legally sovereign waters. But even though China is flouting both custom and international agreement—China ratified and is currently violating the U.N. Law of the Seas Treaty—the president has refused this request.
This failure to act stems from the belief of the Obama administration that China and the U.S. are not strategic rivals, but partners in maintaining international order. Therefore, the logic goes, Chinese expansion does not constitute a threat. This is wrongheaded. Since its founding the U.S has been a maritime state, supporting freedom of navigation on the high seas. America’s security and prosperity depends on free access to the world’s oceans. John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the administration’s refusal to protect U.S. rights in international waters “a dangerous mistake that grants de facto recognition of China’s man-made sovereign claims.”
The immediate risk comes at the expense of shipping lanes that lie hundreds of miles from coasts around the world. A feeble response to Chinese aggression sets a dubious precedent. China has been expanding its naval influence through the Central Asian coast toward Africa. Beijing financed Pakistan’s deep water port at Gwadar and is currently negotiating to use Djibouti as a naval base. Djibouti is a tiny African state that sits astride the entrance to the Red Sea through which ships transiting the Suez Canal pass.
China and Iran have been working to increase military ties, trade, and nuclear cooperation for years. A Chinese-supported extension of African and Central Asian partner states’ sovereignty into the Indian Ocean would put Beijing in a position to control the world’s most strategic oceanic space, the approaches to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. Unimaginable? Who would have thought at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency that Iran would now be pulling the strings in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen? Iran could establish a naval base in Sudan, threatening Saudi Arabia and Israel, and increasing its control over Suez Canal commerce from Sudan’s Red Sea coast.
Turkey could use its occupied territory in Cyprus to assert claims to the Eastern Mediterranean, or encroach on Greek waters through claims to Aegean islands. All these actions would derive legitimacy from uncontested Chinese claims in the South China Sea. If the Chinese can construct islands in international waters and use them as justification to assert sea control, then any of the above actions become imaginable. The Obama administration does not understand that the international order the U.S. helped establish is maintained by asserting the rights on which it rests.
Asserting freedom of navigation has been a tenet of U.S. foreign policy since 1800. The Barbary Wars were the U.S.’s first overseas conflicts. The Barbary States preyed on U.S. merchant shipping, demanding tribute payments until President Jefferson dispatched a Navy squadron to the North African coastline in 1801. Daring action by U.S. officers such as Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge, and Richard Dale resulted in U.S. victory in 1805. President Madison dispatched Decatur and Bainbridge to the Mediterranean once again in 1815, when they crippled the Barbary fleet, forcing negotiations in just days. These actions established the precedent of American global intervention to protect freedom of navigation.
The precedent became a principle. In the Venezuelan Crisis of 1902-1903 the erosion of British, German, and Italian naval power set in motion events that accelerated the U.S.’s rise to global naval preeminence. Cipriano Castro became the president of a rapidly destabilizing Venezuela in October 1899, defaulting on foreign debts and harassing European merchant shipping. An Anglo-German expedition was dispatched to Venezuela in late 1902. The fleet blockaded Venezuela and shelled shore facilities.
Theodore Roosevelt took exception to European military operations in the Western Hemisphere. When the possibility arose that Germany would establish a shore base, the president ordered Admiral Dewey’s fleet to prepare to sail south to confront the European fleet. Rather than escalate, the European powers agreed to negotiate, departing peacefully. Roosevelt understood the threat of unchallenged naval power so close to home. His Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine erased European military intervention in the Western Hemisphere. Britain soon ended its patrol of the Western Atlantic. The U.K. lost its position as a world power half a century later.
If uncontested, China will continue to construct armed islands. This furthers Beijing’s sovereignty claims over distant swaths of international waters. It establishes the dangerous precedent that occupation, combined with the threat of force are acceptable means of restricting freedom of navigation. America has always warded off such perils to our security and prosperity through not only diplomacy, but our own threat of force. The Obama administration should listen to its senior military commanders. Their exercise of U.S. freedom of navigation may irritate China today, but will, by maintaining international order, avoid a far more dangerous confrontation in the future.