A storm is gathering in the South China Sea, and it seems inevitable there will be a showdown between China and the United States over this vital global trade route. But the conflict is not just about power—it’s about the ideas that the two nations see as the heart of the heart of the international system they wish to uphold.
China has frequently tested American presidents over what it can get away within this crucial waterway, and President Donald Trump will likely be on the receiving end of the same treatment. China continues to build island garrisons in what are considered international waters, and it is unclear whether the United States will take action to prevent this buildup. But China’s aggressive actions are more than just a rising nation flexing its strength. It is an open challenge to the American idea of free and open trading routes.
To understand why this conflict is such a crucial test for the United States, Americans should be mindful of one of the great, if almost entirely forgotten, conflicts of the seventeenth century. While British dominance on the high seas during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is more well known, few today remember when it was the Dutch, not the British, who had the world’s greatest maritime empire.