The United States is the world's largest trading nation; 90 percent of the world's trade moves via ship, and 45 percent of all shipping moves through Asia's lawless waters. America's continued prosperity requires free access to the markets and producers of Asia, and the United States Navy is the only reliable guarantor of freedom of navigation in Asia's seas.
But China's sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea and skewed interpretation of the law of the sea are an explicit threat to the freedom of navigation. Six countries claim maritime borders in the South China Sea, but Beijing claims virtually the entire waterway as Chinese territory and declares that foreign warships traversing its maritime territory must first gain China's permission. Beijing's penchant for unilateral military action against the territorial claims of other countries in the region, such as establishing a naval outpost on Mischief Reef less than 200 miles from the Philippines, further militarizes the dispute and forces the countries of Southeast Asia to choose between confronting or submitting to Beijing's threats.
Thus far, the U.S. response to the Chinese challenge has been to remain neutral on the competing maritime border claims and to avoid criticism of China. Other countries in the region have made attempts to defuse the problem, but Beijing has refused multilateral solutions that do not recognize Chinese sovereignty. If Washington continues to allow Beijing's willful misinterpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to remain unchallenged, the South China Sea will become a de facto Chinese lake, the countries of Southeast Asia will be subject to Beijing's interpretations of international law and sovereignty, and the American Navy will have to ask permission from China to transit this vital international waterway.
Although it is outside Washington's jurisdiction to resolve the maritime border dispute in the South China Sea, America cannot allow China's interpretation of international law to remain unchallenged and become dominant in the region. It is in America's national interest to uphold the principle of freedom of navigation, seek stability in a volatile region, and restore order to a commercially important waterway.
- Insist on adjudication of the disputed territories in accordance with international law;
- Oppose extreme claims that would interfere with the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea;
- Make it clear that the use of force to settle any territorial disputes in the South China Sea is unacceptable and demand that claimants both withdraw all military personnel currently stationed on the territories and dismantle their fortifications; and
- Encourage the competing claimants to formulate a temporary set of regulations, or "rules of the road," as a provisional measure until formal treaties can be negotiated.
Heightened U.S. participation in resolving the maritime border dispute would encourage the smaller countries with maritime borders in the South China Sea and at the same time discourage China from further attempts to impose its will unilaterally. Substantive solutions to the border dispute, however, will require all claimant countries to negotiate in good faith and accept compromises in their most controversial claims.
Dana R. Dillon is Senior Policy Analyst for Southeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.