The Right Way to Enforce Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
U.S. Navy surveillance photo of what it says are Chinese dredging vessels fortifying a reef in the South China Sea in May, 2015. (US Navy via Reuters)

Last night I offered a brief reading list about the long-building naval showdown in the South China Sea, plus my own Twitter-scale guide to correct policy there. The latter is a derivative of “speak softly and carry a big stick.” In this case that means continuing to send U.S. naval vessels through traditional sea lanes, but not bragging, taunting, or making a big rhetorical deal of it.

Judah Grunstein, editor of World Politics Review, writes in with these useful elaborations. I turn the floor over to him, with emphasis added by me:

Some thoughts about the right U.S. policy on this, which you sketched out at the end of your post from yesterday.

I'd add that an important component of this policy should be to carry out the very same patrols around similar submerged features claimed by other countries in the South China Sea. Even though China is the only one to have built submerged features into artificial islands, the patrols must be clearly seen as reinforcing the maritime norm involved, without bias or prejudice to who is claiming the features. Otherwise they can be portrayed as the U.S. provoking China, which is in neither side's interest.

This is not as easy as it sounds, by the way, because of the complicated nature of the legal rights accorded various features, and the confusion regarding which SCS [South China Sea] features qualify as what under the UNCLOS [JF note: United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, which the U.S. has not ratified] as this article explains well.

One other point that gets mentioned less in coverage of the disputed territorial claims is that China is also disputing the interpretation of the actual norms involved, namely whether the economic exploitation rights over an an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) accorded by UNCLOS apply to regulating the "innocent passage" and activity of military vessels in the EEZ.

China argues that it has the right to regulate passage of naval vessels, including excluding them, from its Economic Exclusion Zones. The U.S. and most other countries disagree. Their interpretation is a minority one, but it is not that far-fetched when you consider how much of the U.S. Navy activity in the SCS is maritime surveillance and espionage focused on China, and therefore arguably not so innocent. The EEZ interpretation does not apply to the submerged features, but is part of the larger context of who has access to what in the SCS.

Finally, I'd add that another component of the right U.S. policy would be to ratify the UNCLOS upon which all of its policy is based, but good luck with that.


Let me spell out this very important last point. The overwhelming majority of nations in the world, including all of Europe, bigshots like Russia and China, nearly all of Latin America and Africa, all the trade-dependent Asian/Pacific countries, etc, have ratified the Law of the Sea convention. The one huge exception is … the United States.

Pentagon officials have long testified in favor of ratification. So have officials from the State Department. The George W. Bush administration was in favor of it, and the Obama administration is now. But thanks to anti-government, anti-internationalist absolutists in the Senate (think: Sen. Jim Inhofe), the United States has not signed on. You can read more about it here and here.

Why does this matter? It’s one more sign of the nihilist dysfunction we see in the ExIm debate, government shutdowns, and elsewhere. The United States would be on much stronger ground in drawing a line against current Chinese maritime claims, if it had ratified the treaty. The Law of the Sea norms are the ones the U.S. is trying to enforce! But this reality has not penetrated the right-wing opponents of anything that smacks of world government. And we lumber on.


For a completely different approach to the whole topic, you can see Amitai Etzioni’s South China Sea paper, in PDF here. He is wary of any military-based enforcement of Freedom of Navigation norms.