In early June, I travelled by sea from Darwin, Australia to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. I was an observer on two French warships passing through the disputed waters and Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. Beyond the stirring naval encounters with the Chinese navy around the Spratlys, twelve days at sea provided plenty of time to reflect on what lies ahead for the South China Sea.
Let’s start with fundamentals. First, the name. Calling it the South China Sea in English, in a sense, reinforces the Chinese claim. With that name, many overlook that the southern part of the South China Sea lies more than 1,000 miles away from the Chinese coast line. In Chinese, it is named the South Sea, or Nanhai. By contrast, in Vietnam and the Philippines the sea is called, respectively, the East Sea and West Philippine Sea. Both make sense from their geographical perspectives.
Prior to the modern nation-states of Asia, historians now concur that the South China Sea was a nautical fulcrum of exchange populated by semi-nomadic fishers, traders, and pirates. Now each neighboring state tries to efface that history and claim long-standing historical sovereignty. China takes first place for boldness with its nine-dash line, in the shape of a “cow tongue” that extends around 1,000 miles from China’s own coastline and edges much closer to the coastlines of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Bill Hayton, a scholar at Chatham House, has demonstrated how the Chinese sense of entitlement underpins the potential conflict at sea and how the Chinese Communist Party integrates its claims into its victorious national narrative. The government in Beijing is so certain of its claim that it has even engraved the South China Sea on Chinese passports. Chinese tourists in Vietnam stir strong reactions by wearing t-shirts with the “cow tongue.”
In reality, the nine-dash line dates from an imprecise map from the 1940s developed by the then-Chinese Nationalist government. When the nationalists departed for Taiwan, they continued to maintain their claims on the South China Sea—a position still held by the government of Taiwan to this day.
The very names of the islands demonstrate how much history has been written at a late stage. Many of the now disputed reefs got English names from sailors passing through the area. Richard Spratly was a British whaler. Mischief Reef, a feature we passed on my trip, was probably named after a clipper of the same name, but the Chinese name is meijie, a transliteration from the English. The Chinese used English maps as the basis for their modern claims. It all puts a big question mark around the claim of Chinese ownership since ancient times. The archives in Taiwan, which hold invaluable documents on this history, should be explored by an international group of scholars to dispel some of the fog of nationalist rhetoric on all sides.
Still, even equipped with accurate history, the South China Sea will remain a real conflict point. It is a test case for the integrity of international maritime law and diplomatic dispute settlement. It is also a test case for China’s “peaceful rise” and whether it will clash with its neighbors or the United States. I saw first-hand China’s impressive naval build-up with Chinese destroyers guarding Mischief, Subi, and Fiery Cross Reefs. A French naval captain told me that China has built new warships equivalent to the entire French navy in the past four years alone. It also matters to all of us, because a large part of global commerce and energy imports pass through the South China Sea and the critical choke point of the Malacca Strait. Conflict around the South China Sea could block that.
The U.S. position is not to take side on the sovereignty questions and who owns the disputed reefs, but to uphold freedom of navigation for its military ships. France takes the same approach, which was evident on the mission I was on.
Additionally, the United States is deeply concerned about China’s militarization of the islands, which Defense Secretary Mattis called out at the international Shangri-La conference at the beginning of June. As an initial counter-reaction, the United States disinvited China from the RIMPAC naval exercises. It didn’t seem to have any impact on China, and Xi Jinping explained sternly to Defense Secretary Mattis in Beijing on June 27 that China would not give up one inch of territory in the South China Sea.
There have been an increasing number of freedom of navigations operations (FONOPs) in the Trump Administration but little high-level attention. Trump’s quizzical tweet on Saturday, June 2—“Very surprised that China would be doing this?” as a response to Mattis’s statements about China’s “coercion” in the South China Sea—seemed to throw additional uncertainty on policy. Even so, talks with officials in the National Security Council tell me to interpret the comment as Trump being negatively surprised about the Chinese taking such actions in the South China Sea, thus confirming current policy. All in all, it does not seem the President has given much deep thought to the South China Sea and freedom of navigation as yet.
This also means that we should not rule out that the Trumpian transactional approach to international relations could include South China Sea. It could become a piece in a larger negotiation with China where trade and North Korea would loom higher on the U.S. priority list. Perhaps based on that uncertainty about longer-term U.S. commitments, countries such as the Philippines under Duterte are increasingly turning to cut an economic deal with China about access to resources in the South China Sea, although this will simultaneously weaken the Philippines’ sovereignty claims.
The big policy question is if the United States wants to take steps to freeze China’s creeping militarization of the islands. It needs allies for this. The freedom of navigation coalition is clearly growing. I noticed it first-hand as we passed through the Spratly Islands, which the British, Australians, and Americans sailed through within short time intervals. The next step could be joint patrols with allies showing China that it is not only the United States upholding freedom of navigation. Sanctions on Chinese companies doing land reclamation could be part of the toolbox as well. As for international law, it would not harm U.S. credibility if Washington were to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but this seems increasingly unlikely. Encouraging other claimants to follow in the footsteps of the Philippines and bring the issue to international arbitration could be helpful steps in obliging China and other claimants to clarify their specific claims and their basis in international law.
France is seeking to compel other Europeans to take a clearer stand for freedom of navigation. Its military patrols are bringing EU declarations about upholding freedom of navigation and international law into practice. Other Europeans should join in making them joint patrols at future occasions. Yet the European Union should have a role beyond the hard security defense of freedom of navigation as well.
As I passed through the South China Sea, I noted that pollution and overfishing are clearly much greater short-term challenges than the sovereignty issues or the naval great power game between the United States and China. Here the European Union could play a uniquely suited rule in promoting maritime multilateralism, something the organization has excelled at on managing fishing rights and environmental protection in European waters among member states. In the South China Sea, this would be extremely difficult and sensitive, given the low level of trust between the partners, but it could also be a building block for gradually restoring such trust. If no actions are taken soon, the South China Sea will truly become a Chinese lake, overfished and polluted.