America can't contain China

And yet… China evinces no desire to subvert its continental neighbors, still less to foment revolution throughout the world. But it is trying to expand at sea, appropriating islands, atolls, and waters within the China seas. Spokesmen explain that China exercises sovereignty there, meaning a monopoly of force within national territory. Water is territory from an official Chinese standpoint.

How do you respond to that if you’re sitting in the Oval Office, Foggy Bottom, or the Pentagon? Well, Washington and its allies may find themselves compelled to accept Beijing’s interpretation of what the sea is — territory to be governed, rather than a commons open to all — if they’re to resist Chinese efforts to purloin waters and land features within Asian states’ exclusive economic zones.

Redefining coastal states’ EEZs as “blue national soil,” to borrow the Chinese phrase, would clarify matters. It would show that the Chinese fishing fleet, the China Coast Guard, and the PLA Navy are guilty of old-fashioned cross-border aggression when they pierce into the Philippine EEZ at places like Scarborough Shoal and expel the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard — agents of the rightful sovereign — from national maritime territory.

This is an unpleasant conclusion to reach, I grant you. It amounts to accepting China’s repeal of Hugo Grotius’ idea of the free sea — the doctrine on which the international maritime order is founded — within the China seas. John Selden’s vision of the closed sea would prevail there. But accepting China’s terms would show Asian nations they must band together to repel aggression — whether of the terrestrial or watery variety.