Reporter's Notebook

Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea
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Our latest coverage on the tensions among China, the United States, and other powers over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

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If You're Thinking About a Looming Naval-Warfare Showdown in the South China Sea ...

U.S. commander of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Scott Swift, discussing freedom of navigation earlier this month, in Australia. (David Gray / Reuters)

… here are a few things to read:

1) “China Announces the U.S.’s Spratly Patrols to the Masses,” by Andrew Chubb in SouthSeaConversations. This is an informative view on the domestic-Chinese politics of this episode of standing up to the bullying American forces. Sample:

The high-handed [Chinese] demand that the American side “correct its mistakes” leaves the CCP [Chinese govt] well positioned to claim that its stern response forced an aggressive hegemon to back down.

At least one US official has described the patrols are “routine“, suggesting there will be more to come. Even if the US patrols happen, say, once a month from now on, it will be up to the CCP to decide how often Chinese mass audiences hear about this. Having established a high level of domestic publicity on this occasion, the CCP might well be able to (implicitly or explicitly) encourage the perception that it forced the US to back down, simply by not affording the publicity to future FoN [Freedom of Navigation] patrols.

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.

For anyone following the action in the South China Sea, as laid out in the previous posts collected in this Thread, I highly recommend a post at the LawFareBlog on the fine points of the dispute. It’s by Adam Klein and Mira Rapp-Hooper, and it carefully delineates the differing claims that China, the United States, and other countries are making about the rocks/islands/reefs/airstrips in the South China Sea — and the differing ways in which U.S. Navy ships passing through this area can establish freedom-of-navigation principles.

The whole thing is closely argued and worth reading. Here is the payoff point on what they recommend as the highest-payoff approach with the least gratuitous provocation:

The state-controlled People’s Daily responds to the international court ruling.

The ruling this morning by Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in favor of the Philippines, and very strongly against China in their dispute over the South China Sea, was not surprising in its basic result. Most people following the issue had expected that China’s very sweeping claims would not hold up.

The foreseeability of that outcome is precisely why the Chinese government has preemptively been pooh-poohing the court and its legitimacy over the past few weeks, and lining up a ragtag set of allies to support its cause. This group includes none of the countries most affected by China’s expanded maritime activities, and it features those reliant on Chinese aid or trade. (Eg Cambodia, Liberia, Senegal, etc.)

But the sternness of the ruling, and its explicit criticism of the basic premises of China’s arguments, was more than most people expected. For the moment this is a placeholder note on ways to learn more about the ruling, its consequences, and China’s dismissive initial response:

  • Andrew Erickson, of the Naval War College, has been on this subject for a long time. You can read his initial assessment here, with links to related items.
  • ChinaFile has kicked off a conversation today with Erickson and a number of other China luminaries, which is very much worth reading. Sample from Peter Dutton, also of the Naval War College:
    “This decision is much more than a pyrrhic victory for the Philippines as some will be tempted to suggest. This opinion will have normative power that over the long run will and should affect the way every state thinks about the South China Sea in the future. Ultimately, the ruling’s power is not in its direct enforceability, but in the way it will inevitably alter perceptions about right and wrong actions in the South China Sea. Coercion will no longer stand with moral impunity. Even if indirectly, the opinion should therefore serve as the basis for improved bilateral negotiations in the future. It has significantly narrowed the scope of what is in reasonable and justifiable dispute and therefore should help the parties move closer to a final resolution of their differences.”
  • At the Lawfare site, Julian Ku of Hofstra offers his quick take. Sample:
    “Is it possible to win by too much? The complete and sweeping nature of the Philippines legal victory may make it harder for China to agree to any negotiations that do not exclude the award’s effects as a precondition. This could be a problem going forward.”
  • The Interpreter, an always-valuable international-affairs site from the Lowy Institute in Sydney, has not yet analyzed the ruling itself (time zones etc). But yesterday it had this preview article, about expected results of the ruling, by Derek Lundy.
  • One-time guest blogger Brian Glucroft has a roundup of the China-based reactions. The Shanghaiist similarly reports on China’s “we are not amused” response. Also see Quartz’s report on China’s preemptive criticism of the court.
  • Also see previous items in this thread for background on the controversy.