Mariners and the specialty mariner press know it’s big. But mariners can’t fix this. It will take national policies to fix it, and non-specialist citizens therefore need to understand its importance.
So, I reiterate: this is big. After several years of preparations for this day (see, for example, here, here, and here), China has issued a unilateral order that foreign fishing vessels will have to obtain permits from China to fish in two-thirds of the South China Sea (SCS), an area in which China has long made excessive territorial claims.
Bill Gertz has an excellent summary at the Washington Free Beacon. The map below, from WFB, displays the area in question. China announced in late November that this zone would be enforced starting on 1 January 2014.
On 3 January, Chinese ships harassed and then deliberately collided with a Vietnamese vessel operating in the designated area (see video). The “enforcement” regime has thus begun.
A few initial comments. First, this is one of the things I have meant by repeating, over and over, that when China assumes control of a waterway, it’s for the purpose of exercising a veto over the economic activities of other nations, and forcing them to pay tribute to China, in order to have specifically authorized use of the waterway. Whether or not the Chinese rule explicitly involves an up-front fee today, it ultimately will. (It does explicitly involve levying “fines,” as announced in November.) But China is also establishing – if anyone can be made to request a permit or pay a fine – that she has de facto authority over the disputed or international waters of the South China Sea.
China will never operate on any other basis, at least under foreseeable political conditions. China does not enforce her will in waterways in order to ensure free and safe access to them for all. That’s what the United States does. It is not what China does. Nor, for that matter, is it what Russia does.
Other global-seagoing nations, like Japan, India, the British Commonwealth nations, and the NATO nations, are empowered to act on the same principle as the United States because of the power and policy of the United States. In the absence of American power, those other nations will have to become more defensive in their approach, and – at least on the margins, which will expand over time – will have to pursue maritime policies that become gradually more exclusionary and veto-based, rather than permissive.
If this Chinese gambit isn’t nipped in the bud, promptly and comprehensively, deterioration of conditions at sea around the globe is inevitable. One reason is simply the perception of precedent and the use of raw power, which will encourage bad actors elsewhere (like Iran; but there are maritime disputes in all the world’s waters waiting to go supercritical if at least one party is emboldened). The other is the fact that China’s move is directly contrary to the letter and spirit of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
China’s neighbors have respected the Law of the Sea, making their competing SCS claims in accordance with its principles. Their posture has been one of defending their individual claims against the day when a final agreement is reached among the parties. China’s posture has been one of declining to recognize the principles of the Law of the Sea, in outlining her own maritime claims, and of stating those claims in a venue outside of the UN. Beijing has consistently bypassed UNCLOS in asserting Chinese claims, in effect declining to acknowledge its authority on the matter.
If the UN and its major maritime powers simply sit still for China’s move in the SCS, the Law of the Sea will become meaningless, more quickly than anyone imagines today. We must be clear on the fact that the Chinese have felt empowered to do this because the United States looks exceptionally weak right now. The Chinese are calculating that they can get away with it.
Whenever regional conditions might begin to look unstable, modern, authoritarian China would want to be able to make this move. It’s geographically obvious for a land power with a pessimistic outlook. Instead of negotiating maritime rights and accommodations, in good faith, as Norway, Denmark, and Sweden now do in the Baltic, for example, an authoritarian nation like the People’s Republic of China will assume it must assert unilateral power over restricted waterways (like the archipelago-infested SCS), in order to avoid losing access in and through them.
China assumes she can’t trust her neighbors. But more than that, she is determined not to accept the premises of equal national authority in contested spaces, and mutual obligations negotiated on general and abstract principles. For China’s self-concept, that amounts to an encroachment on sovereignty.
That posture is, of course, the exact opposite of the premise on which the United Nations was formed. China’s maritime gambit, if it stands, is a blow to the solar plexus of the post-1945 international order.
Will it stand? The whole point is that in 2014, we don’t know. The other nations won’t simply accept China’s new rule without caveat or complaint. But I predict with certainty that the United States under Barack Obama will not do the one thing that could restore the status quo ante. We should, in fact, have already done it: publicly declared our opposition to China’s move, back in early December, and positioned our forces to signify our determination to protect the maritime status quo, prior to 1 January.
If China insisted on this confrontation, then China had to be made to back down from her threat. We haven’t done that, and it’s clear we’re not going to.
What I foresee instead is a period of annoyance, frustration, and creeping Chinese control over the SCS as consortia of nations try to talk China down from her unacceptable position. Putting yourself in such a provocative position, from which others have to try to talk you down, is an old and very effective power move. (Negotiators from North Vietnam to the former Soviet Union to radical Iran and the Palestinian Authority have used it repeatedly in the last half century.) You can gain a lot of time that way, and wring a lot of concessions from economy-of-effort opponents, which is what the great maritime powers invariably are during non-belligerent periods.
The U.S. may well participate in those consortia petitioning China for one parley after another. There will undoubtedly be naval patrols and tactical confrontations along the way, perhaps some of them involving the U.S. Navy. That won’t mean that the unique power of the United States is being brought to bear.
Once we allow that China has something to negotiate with her excessive claims, the price of winning any concessions from China will be making concessions to China. She will end up with some level of effective authority over the SCS that will change political and economic realities there for everyone: those who fish and mine there, and those – millions of tons of cargo per day – who transit the waters.
By sitting down to talk, instead of stopping China cold and enforcing an immediate reversion to the status quo ante, the U.S. will merely be participating in that process.
It is false, even today, to suggest that the U.S. doesn’t have the option of stopping China cold. China is not in such a strong position that she can deal America unbearable blows, should we act to enforce a permissive status quo in the South China Sea. We would have the active support of many other nations in the G-20 (including their help, if we are there, with naval and air patrols). Russia would stand aside; she wouldn’t add her weight to China’s effort. Even if China tried to attack America financially, she would have to go it alone, and American allies like Japan and the EU-3 would consider it to be in their interest to come to the U.S. dollar’s aid.
The consequences of letting China’s destabilizing process get underway will be much worse than what it would take to quash it. Nations like Japan, Russia, India, and Australia can’t simply accept China’s move. And they won’t. But what kind of new order will they be able to enforce in the SCS? They will come up with something. It will mean confrontations, new alliances, and agreements with China that will undercut the whole idea of an international order. Whatever it is, the U.S. will become subject, however tacitly at first, to their vetoes – not just in matters of maritime convention in the SCS, but in all our relations involving them.
So will a lot of other nations.
The reputation of American leadership has already been fatally compromised under Obama. The outcome of the Chinese SCS gambit will demonstrate, in 2014, that in a world “multilateralizing” at a breathless pace, America is no longer the indispensable ally. Some would say that the fact that China felt free to make her move has demonstrated that already. And they are probably right.