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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When Does a Reef Become an Island, and Other Mysteries of the South China Sea

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:

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.

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.