U.S. allies may expand their naval presence in the South China Sea in order to counteract China’s assertion of sovereignty over one of the most vital shipping lanes in the world, a senior Pentagon official predicted Tuesday.
China has laid claim to South China Sea waterways as far as 1,000 miles away from the Chinese coast, far more than the 200 miles reserved for a given country under international law. That has set the stage for diplomatic contests and perhaps military confrontation between China and five other claimants in the region, including the U.S.-allied Philippines.
“I think what you’ll see is certainly a continuation of freedom of navigation [operations],” Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said at the American Enterprise Institute. “I think you’ll see perhaps more countries joining in presence activities … Presence in the South China Sea is very important because China claims the whole thing up to the Nine-Dash Line.”
The Communist regime uses a “Nine-Dash Line” to argue that, historically, China has enjoyed sovereignty over the vast majority of the South China Sea. But under international law, a country’s territorial sovereignty extends just 12 nautical miles from the coastline, although each country has exclusive economic rights to resources within 200 miles of the coast.
“And so if you’re the Vietnamese and that Chinese claim is accepted, you’re essentially a landlocked state,” Gregory Poling, a regional expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explained during a Nixon Foundation event in February. “You have no fishing rights, at least no exclusive fishing rights, you have no rights to undersea oil and gas, you have no rights whatsoever except those that China gives you. The Philippines it’s almost as bad. You have one coastline, not two.”
That’s a problem for the United States, in two ways. First, if China ever sinks a Philippine ship, an American president will have to decide how to defend a key ally. “And if we don’t, then every ally that the U.S. has globally is gonna start wondering what the price is on their head because the Philippines aren’t worth standing up for,” Poling said.
And if China wins the crisis, then other countries will take note. “And pretty soon after that the Russians will start claiming vast swaths of the Arctic, and the Iranians will demand special rights to restrict the Persian Gulf, and it’ll be a race to grab the ocean,” he predicted. “Then what we’ll basically have is a system in which big navies in big countries get to make their own rules.”
China has deployed military facilities to artificial islands constructed in the sea, while arguing that the United States has no right to challenge the issue because it lacks territorial sovereignty in the area. “The United States has no right to make irresponsible remarks about this,” China’s Defense Ministry said in March.
U.S. officials are looking at an array of options to punish the activity and similar moves elsewhere, Schriver said.
“I think you’ll potentially see more cost-imposition, even if it’s not directly on point,” he said at AEI. “We don’t have to do something in the South China Sea, per se, to express our concern about what China is doing in the South China Sea themselves. “