Multilateralism and the South China Sea

By Savannah Nelson

Savannah Nelson is a master’s student in the Global and National Security program at the University of New Mexico. She earned her B.A. in International Studies and Spanish with a minor in Mandarin from Colorado State University. She is also an intern at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base

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Savannah Nelson is a master’s student in the Global and National Security program at the University of New Mexico. She earned her B.A. in International Studies and Spanish with a minor in Mandarin from Colorado State University. She is also an intern at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base.

ACADEMIC INCUBATOR — The South China Sea has seen an expansion of China’s power and it will continue to host long-term competition there with the United States.  Power projection activities such as naval Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) have proven insufficient to counter and deter Chinese expansionism. To be effective, the U.S. must pair unilateral military action with a multilateral strategy that includes trade agreements and commitment to a legal framework based on the UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS).

China has mapped 80 to 90 percent of the South China Sea with an ambiguous nine-dash line. It claims the coral reefs, the Spratly and other islands, the fossil fuels, the fisheries, and the shipping lanes inside the nine-dash line are within its territorial jurisdiction and that it has the right to absorb and occupy any features that overlap with another country’s territorial seas. Gray zone methods, like the “cabbage strategy,” slowly chip away at what other countries deem acceptable behavior without crossing a red line.  Using the cabbage strategy in the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal, China chokes the already occupied island from supply shipments by surrounding it with boats in overlapping layers, like the leaves of a cabbage.

In the Spratly and Parcel Islands, China has built artificial islands by dredging the sea floor for sand and piling it on top of sub-surface coral reefs which are then militarized with naval ports, air fields, and anti-aircraft weaponry.  With these militarized islands and a possible future Air Identification Zone, China aims to control trade as well as sea and air traffic in the South China Sea, create a buffer zone for its southern coast should military conflict erupt with the United States, and gain a stepping stone to expand its sea power into the Indian Ocean. China’s control over the sea is a major challenge to the U.S. Navy’s traditional guardianship of freedom of navigation through one of the world’s most important international waterways. 

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) outmatches any other navy in the region, but China also employs additional maritime tools like its Coast Guard and fishing fleets to harass other countries’ naval and fishing boats. China’s non-military maritime elements escalate situations with other countries, who do not react in equal measure because they know the PLAN lurks nearby to intervene and to provide reinforcement. China now virtually controls the Sea due to the combination of aggression, a navy superior to its neighbors, militarized land masses, and economic policies.

China’s nine-dash line and related actions violate neighboring countries’ territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that are entitled to them under UNCLOS. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines, deciding that China’s actions like those at Scarborough Shoal violated Filipino sovereignty and that the nine-dash line has no legal basis. Along with Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia, China is a party to UNCLOS, although it routinely ignores and delegitimizes efforts under UNCLOS to curtail its actions. China started undermining the Permanent Court’s ruling two years before it was decided, saying that it would not recognize the decision and consistently failed to appear at any of the hearings to avoid lending the process legitimacy. It has since called the decision “null and void” with “no binding effect on China.”

Although the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling gave the Philippines some recourse, there is no enforcement body to support the Court’s ruling. China has carried on in the South China Sea as if there were never a case against it. Rodrigo Duterte, the Filipino president, wants a more open trade relationship with China and is not interested in enforcing the ruling.

The United States, however, together with its regional allies Japan and South Korea, which depend on free and open waters in the South China Sea for trade, do have an interest in limiting China’s influence and denying legitimacy to its actions. The U.S. signed UNCLOS in 1994 and recognizes it as international law, but has failed to ratify the agreement. Although the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations recognized its benefits for the U.S and prioritized ratification, the U.S. Senate has not ratified due to Republican Senators’ concerns that UNCLOS’s mandatory dispute settlement procedures impede U.S. sovereignty, as well as restrictions on deep-sea mining that are a potential stepping stone towards climate change legislation.

However, ratifying UNCLOS would enhance multilateral cooperation and bring strategic advantages in an era of great power competition that would greatly eclipse these objections. By becoming a full party to UNCLOS, the U.S. would make the agreement stronger while signaling to the rest of the world that it accepts and abides by international law of the sea, and more generally that participating in international agreements, despite imperfections, holds more benefits than not participating. While granting U.S. positions on subjects such as EEZs more legitimacy in permanent international law, ratification would also increase U.S. negotiating leverage and ability to hold China accountable in the South China Sea.

Positioned as a defender of UNCLOS, the U.S. would become a better regional partner, in a stronger position to reassure allies while continuing to discourage and counter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. No country in the region has a navy that rivals China’s, which makes the U.S. naval presence that more important. Frequent and unannounced FONOPS will project power and send a message to China that the international community recognizes and abides by international law, not what China claims are its jurisdictions. Performing FONOPS with allied navies would multiply projections of power, and also impress upon China that although it has a home field advantage, with its ground forces to support its navy should naval conflict break out, it stands alone in the region against the unified force of the U.S. and its allies.

The U.S. should also revisit the Trans Pacific Partnership to counter China through trade. The TPP was poised not only to open markets for U.S. goods, but also to provide the U.S. with a community of international trading partners that would have mounted a collective and unified counter to China’s economic power in the Asian Pacific region. If the U.S. had been in the TPP when it implemented tariffs against China, the burden of the reciprocal Chinese tariffs would have been shared among the U.S.’s trading partners, instead of the U.S. taking on all of the consequences alone. The U.S. would have a greater influence in the region as an important trade partner, which would have brought more states to the U.S.’s table on other issues. Both the TPP and UNCLOS would give the U.S. a better vantage point from which to influence states to act in U.S. interests instead of China’s.

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