Let's not panic over the South China Sea (yet)

Last night Noah wrote about the “sudden” flare-up in tensions surrounding China’s stance on maritime territorial control in the South China Sea, specifically as it relates to their construction projects in the Spratly Islands. While there is certainly some saber rattling going on, the response from the Obama administration (as well as many hawks in the commentariat) seems more than a little overblown. We’re going to be investing some serious geopolitical capital if we decide to run naval exercises in the region and it’s an expenditure that comes with serious risks – at least in terms of credibility – if it turns into a showdown where we wind up blinking first. But it’s also worth noting that it’s unlikely in the extreme that this spat will turn into a military conflict between China and the United States.


The initial public statements on our end were, in my estimation, a bit more heated than necessary.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter requested options that include sending aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of reefs that China has been building up in the Spratly island chain, the official said.

Such a move would directly challenge Chinese efforts to expand its influence in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.

“We are considering how to demonstrate freedom of navigation in an area that is critical to world trade,” the U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that any options would need White House approval.

For China’s part, they seem to be echoing the same sentiments that the United States expresses regarding waters closer to home.

Asked about the Pentagon plan, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that Beijing was “extremely concerned” and demanded that the U.S. issued a clarification of the remarks.

“Freedom of navigation certainly does not mean that foreign military ships and aircraft can enter another country’s territorial waters or airspace at will,” said ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a regular briefing.

While it pains me to say it, the Chinese have a point which will probably find sympathetic ears in much of the rest of the global community, including with some of our allies. Sometimes a quick look at some maps can provide the perspective that a thousand words will not. The Spratly Islands are located where you see the red marker.
To draw a comparison to something more familiar to American readers, take a look at this map.
Note the marker in the red circle. Do you know what you find near there? Oil platforms. And you can rest assured that the United States keeps a very close eye on any naval activity which takes place anywhere in the Gulf, particularly around that region. We even lay out international doctrine which defines where our “exclusive economic zone” lies, which incidentally goes far beyond our default twelve mile international boundaries for territorial waters. Compare that zone (in blue below) to where the red dot was.


The South China Sea is the watery backyard of China. Even if we do not yet want to call China a global superpower (a position which looks more dubious by the year) they are most certainly the regional superpower in that area. As such, they feel very protective of that stretch of water. But at the same time, their fate is now tied to that of the United States through economic interests such as ownership of our debt and the need to ship their cheap products to American consumers through trade deals. Those interests far outweigh their need for national pride in terms of sticking a finger in our eye over a naval engagement. As long as they aren’t attacking merchant vessels, how outrageous are the claims that they are making?

The Chinese will probably be quick to point out that there was a period in our history, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, when we actually established a blockade around a sovereign nation only 90 miles from our coast when they decided they wanted to team up with the USSR and install some nifty new missiles. In historical terms, what China is doing is neither unusual nor all that provocative. I’ve yet to hear from a single foreign policy analyst who thinks that China would be at all interested in a military conflict with America which would be catastrophic to both parties. One would imagine that a competent administration could readily nudge the Chinese in one direction or the other with some gentle, back room discussions about the economic realities which entangle both of our nations. In fact, I believe our Secretary of State is scheduled to be visiting the Chines in the coming days. Granted, his performance with Iran doesn’t inspire much confidence, but this might be something within his range. Initial reports are that he plans to take a tough approach, but too heavy of a hand will botch these talks as well. Let’s hope he can manage something a bit more subtle.


Turning this into a political chip in Washington seems to be a gross overreaction by the Obama administration when we already have plenty of other pots boiling away on the stove. Let’s not fly into a panic over the Spratly Islands before it’s warranted.

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