First published on The National Interest on 9 November, 2015.
The South China Sea has become increasingly contested in 2015. Prompted by China's extensive reclamation program, the complex and multilayered dispute has become a dominant feature in regional diplomacy and strategic dialogue. The contest has been keenly watched, not because it is likely to trigger a great-power conflict, but because of what it tells us about the broader regional dynamics of Sino-American contestation. Indeed nothing seems to illustrate Asia's period of power transition than the brash upstart defying the dominant power by building islands with strategic intent.
The U.S. has made plain many times, both publically and privately, its dissatisfaction with China's activities. At multilateral forums, such as the Shangri La Dialogue and the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers' meetings, regional powers, both allied to Washington and non-allies alike, have been disconcerted by the speed and scale of Beijing's reclamation activities. After the long periods of debate and internal argument that has characterized much of the Obama administration's foreign policy, the United States felt that it had to use military means to signal its response to the island building program.
The United States opted to begin a series of freedom of navigation exercises that were intended to show that America did not recognize any change in the status of the waters surrounding the newly built islands. The first of these involved the dispatch of USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, along with a P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft, to undertake such an exercise in the waters surrounding Subi Reef, with similar activities likely to occur every six weeks or so.
Not only was the U.S. response slow, the public diplomacy surrounding it was poorly managed. U.S. officials have not clearly and consistently stated what kind of activity was undertaken. Some officials have stated that it was a freedom of navigation exercise – in which military vessels undertake activity that is legitimate on the high seas but not acceptable in territorial waters. Others say Lassen exercised 'innocent passage', that is conduct not only acceptable in territorial waters but indirectly reflecting recognition of territorial claims. No detailed information about just what happened has yet been provided.
However, America's problem relates not just to the optics of its activity and woeful coordination among the various branches of government in Washington, but it also appears to misread what China wants in the South China Sea. Indeed this mirrors much of the commentary that has fixated on the narrow technical concerns and not on the larger strategic picture.
The United States and many others seem to be overly focused on the notion that China is building the islands as the basis on which to make claims about maritime boundaries. In response to such acts they believe the right response is to take steps that deny recognition of these claims. But this small ball assessment of China's aims is flawed. By focusing narrowly on Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) claims and jurisdictional questions, one fails to recognize what Beijing's strategic objective in the South China Sea entails.
Beijing has famously adopted a deliberately ambiguous position on the South China Sea. It has not yet formally stated the nature of its claims, perhaps most famously in its wonderfully vague 'dashed line map'. Notwithstanding the lack of a formal statement, one can infer from its activities a three-pronged long term strategic ambition for the sea. It wants to end the period of maritime vulnerability which it has experienced since the mid-19th century. The foreigners that subjugated China in the past came from the sea and today its prosperity is dependent on the flow of energy and goods through maritime channels.
It also wants to enjoy the resource benefits of the sea—both its fisheries and hydrocarbon reserves. Protein and energy demands are growing and the value of these commodities is similarly rising. And it wants 'historic' China to be whole again. The South China Sea is considered to be part of China that was dismembered by colonialism and whose redemption has become the Communist Party's existential purpose. Thus for strategic, material and identity reasons, China has placed a high priority on this body of water and its many geographic features.
China's approach to the South China Sea dispute has often been described as 'salami slicing'. That is, it takes small, incremental steps that are on their own relatively innocuous to achieve its larger ambition. Indeed this notion seems to underpin the American response. Yet this image does not quite capture the multidimensional strategy through which it is trying to fulfill its ambition. China is not spending huge amounts of money building islands to make EEZ claims or even the establish an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Rather it is part of a larger strategy of acting, in multiple ways, as if the dashed line were its maritime boundaries. It acts as if it were the resident sovereign authority within that space. It arrests people fishing in its commercial waters, it made Sansha a city so that it can be the legal base for administering the territory, it enforces laws within that space, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) deployed an oil rig to exercise its right to commercial exploitation of the waters and it has accused the United States of 'undermining its sovereignty and security interests' through the activity of USS Lassen.
The building of islands is just the latest—albeit large—step in acting as if it had sovereign authority over the territories in the South China Sea. It sees the importance of international waterways through the South China Sea and it is not claiming full territorial waters prerogatives over the sea as a whole. As officials have said, the sea lanes are wide enough to accommodate trade and the passage of the U.S. Navy. But by mistaking China's aims as a series of small discrete steps and not seeing the multidimensional operation to achieve this larger objective, the United States is responding in ways which will be ultimately ineffective to its preferred political outcomes.
Until such time as the United States and its allies realize the scale of China's ambition and develop suitably strategic responses, China will continue to act as if the South China Sea is Chinese. And the longer that takes, the more likely that reality becomes.
Professor Nick Bisley is Executive Director of La Trobe Asia.