The recent escalation of tensions in the South China Sea once again brought the decades-long territorial dispute to the brink of a violent confrontation that reminds us that our next territorial battles may not be over land, but rather water. As the world’s leading naval power and trading partner, America has an important stake in ensuring the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes that threaten to disrupt or close crucial international trade channels and throw global economies into disarray. However, we must exercise caution and prudence when doing so, utilizing partners and multi-lateral organizations strategically to secure the free flow of globalcommerce.
When a seemingly simple incident between Chinese fishermen and Vietnamese scientists elicits ominous threats from the senior leadership of the two nations (the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement that Vietnam was "gravely violating" China's sovereignty), it is a sign that both sides view the broader dispute as deeply material to their national interests. While the immediate conflict has appeared to have stabilized, as evidenced by China and Vietnam holding joint naval operations days later, the long-term dispute remains. Protests in Vietnam continue in front of the Chinese Embassy, and it is likely that similar conflicts over the area will continue to occur, given the vast amount of oil and gas reserves. We cannot have faith that they can be resolved at the 13th hour in such a peaceful fashion.
While the conflict in the South China Sea is not the only maritime conflict simmering at the moment, it is currently one of the most diplomatically urgent issues in the global maritime arena. Half of the world's merchant fleet by tonnage sails through South China Sea every year. America, as the world's most powerful naval force and leading global trading partner, has an important, yet controversial role to play in resolving such disputes.
There are no fewer than ten countries staking their territorial claims to this area of water in the pacific referred to as the South China Sea. China is the largest and most powerful of the countries, but it is joined by overlapping claims from Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, and others.
America's involvement in the issue is politically sensitive. We have a lot riding on the issue both economically in seeing commerce flowfreely and politically in reasserting our diplomatic involvement in such global conflicts. But when Secretary Hilary Clinton spoke assertively last year on the issue at a major ASEAN conference, she was met by a cool response by China, who viewed her statements as siding against China and demanded that the US stay out of the issue.
The question facing American policy makers and the military community is whether America should flex its powerful naval muscles to resolve these disputes? Or should China, the region’s strongest power with anambitious naval expansion program, adopt a “might is right” strategy to get its way?
There is some historical precedence that deserves examining. In 1823, a rising power claimed its authority over regional territories when the US adopted the Monroe Doctrine, declaring the Americas off-limits to European powers. Despite not having a formidable Navy at the time, Great Britain had its own reasons to follow this policy and acted as a quiet backer of the Doctrine. As such, the remaining established powers did little to challenge the claim as America spent the next several decades building its own navy, and the Doctrine remained a de facto international law into the 20th century.
Today, one can argue that China is playing the role of America, a rising power staking its claim to an entire region even if it doesn’t yet have the naval power to enforce it. The takeaway from thecase of the Monroe Doctrine is that the support of an outside power, eitherexplicit or implicit, can make a big difference in the ability of a lesser power to get away with such a claim. If it is thus in the global interest for balanced agreements to the disputed claims in the South China Sea, America must make it clear that we will participate constructively protecting the best interests of the international community.
Yet a more recent example can further sharpen this lesson. The Russian government today tends to see American presence in the Black Sea, particularly in light of NATO’s participation in the European Missile Defense Shield system, as a national security threat. Despite this, the U.S. is able to maintain a military presence as a result of sharing a fear of the destabilization of Afghanistan as a common national security threat with Russia. As part of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which provides equipment and supplies to troops throughout the country, the American military secures access to the Black Sea by virtue of their campaign in Afghanistan. While it is certainly an uneasy compromise, Russia feelsthat an unstable Afghanistan is a greater security threat than a strategically placed, but preoccupied United States. In this instance, the lesson is that by emphasizing the importance of common threats and mutual interests, cooperation and open navigation can be achieved even when, on the surface, it appears to go against a country’s interests.
Looking at these conflicts, while they all have unique histories, the defining characteristic is that none has been able to function successfully and peacefully without free trade, unfettered openings, and international agreements on how to cooperate in these spaces.
That brings us back to the South China Sea. America needs to be involved, but I believe that we should be tactful and strategic about how to use our influence in the common interest of China and all other claimants. Interfering in ASEAN/multi-lateral negotiations is not essential, and in the past has often done more harm than good.
One idea worth considering is engaging a neutral arbitrator to help resolve the disputes. Indonesia is an interesting actor to consider in brokering agreements between China and other claimants. It is in the region, has minimal claims in the dispute, is the world’s largest Muslim democracy, and could play an important role as the current head of ASEAN. Regardless of who arbitrates any potential agreements, the U.S. must be willing to act as a quiet partner and guarantor to enforce the decisions. Tactful diplomacy must also be utilized that stresses the mutual interests furthered by ensuring free and open navigation for trade.
If successful, this could potentially serve as a model for a number of such seas in the midst of economically and politically significant disputes that can unpredictably heat up. These simmering disputes can have tremendous impact on global economies should they not be resolved. In particular, oceans north of the former Soviet Union have recently been opened due to global warming and glacier melting. These provide efficient passage to Europe, essentially creating a new trade route akin to the Suez Canal. These seas are critical to global commerce and cooperation, yet there are global disagreements over which country, if any, controls these waters.
There are several considerations in all of this which we should keep in mind as the US reacts appropriately to this issue:
-There are many more common interests to early and friendly resolution than most writers and politicians allow us to believe. These include first, the capture of the resources and the benefits that will bring to allinvolved, second the early common assurance that long-term free and open passage is assured through the region, and third the ability to get on to other very important issues affecting the region.
-The media and political journalists writing of these issues tend to sensationalize any statement or action, especially those by the US or China, no matter how insignificant the item might be.
-There tend to be many common statements and assurances by both China and the US. These include assurances at the highest levels in China and the US that they both want to resolve all claims issues peacefully, that they want fair sharing of the many natural resources in the area, and that they want freedom of passage in the region.
The US must realize that the claims to the region have many historical elements. We must keep a cool head, not overact to outsidepress and sometimes irresponsible political statements made by people on all sides, and in a spirit of quiet partnership with the countries of the region, and yes, China play a constructive role in the ultimate and final resolution.
The US and the world must work to share these seas for peaceful use. Despite tremendous advances in technology and modes of transportation over the centuries, at the end of the day, global commerce still depends centrally on the high seas.
Bill Owens was an admiral in the United States Navy and later Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the second highest ranking member of the U.S. Armed Forces. He currently serves as a managing director of AEA Investors in Hong Kong.