As a seafaring state, America demands maximal access to the world’s oceans within the constraints of international law. Though seldom recognized, U.S. efforts to defend its interest in maritime freedom in the Western Pacific have been fairly successful. When the People’s Republic of China unlawfully draws “fences” around the sea, U.S. warships steam through the fences. Beijing recognizes the seriousness of America’s position, and thus far has generally yielded.
However, when it comes to helping its allies and partners protect themselves against Chinese encroachment, the United States has a mixed record. Since 2006, Beijing has dramatically expanded the frontiers of its control in the East and South China Seas. To pursue its irredentist agenda, Beijing has largely relied on unarmed or lightly armed paranaval forces — coast guard and militia — conducting operations in what has been described as the “gray zone” between war and peace. Despite the robust presence of American sea power in contested areas of maritime East Asia, the United States has largely failed to halt China’s bullying behavior. This failure devalues Washington’s commitments to its friends and shakes the foundations of the U.S. alliance system — the true source of American global influence.
To better aid its allies and partners, Washington should consider expanding its catalogue of peacetime maritime operations. Passive presence has proved inadequate. In some cases, American policymakers may need to place U.S. forces on the front lines, where they can play a more direct role helping other states counter China’s seaward expansion.
Defending U.S. Maritime Freedom: Largely a Success Story
The United States does not possess or claim any land west of the Mariana Islands and therefore has no proprietary interest in the outcome of sovereignty disputes in the East and South China seas. However, Beijing’s maritime claims do directly threaten U.S. maritime freedom: above all, the freedom to conduct naval operations unimpeded wherever international law allows. China seeks to turn the exclusive economic zone into a security zone. It proclaims the prerogative to limit foreign naval activities within its jurisdictional waters, imperiling American access to huge sections of ocean within the First Island Chain. China’s method for drawing baselines around terrestrial features — the first step in demarcating zones of maritime jurisdiction — also threatens U.S. interests. By treating islands, rocks, and reefs as clusters instead of individual features, Beijing creates far more “Chinese” space than it is legally entitled. This “fake it till you make it” approach to international law risks generating gigantic sea and air zones in which Beijing claims the sovereign right to exclude all foreign activities it opposes.
The United States justifiably refuses to allow China’s excessive claims to affect its behavior. U.S. Navy special mission ships, for instance, routinely operate in the East Asian littorals. Ocean surveillance vessels like the Impeccable and Victorious monitor the underwater environment with their powerful towed arrays, collecting intelligence on foreign submarine activities. Meanwhile, oceanographic survey ships like the Bowditch and the Henson compile foundational marine data that serve as inputs for the systems and models upon which the fleet relies. With these operations, American forces exercise navigational freedoms to serve U.S. security interests in this region.