America and China Are Locked in Battle for Control of the South China Sea


The future of the global maritime commons and the Asian balance of power is at stake in the South China Sea. It’s valuable real estate: half of the world’s commercial shipping and $5 trillion of goods passes through it, connecting the world’s fastest growing economies. Beyond the economic and strategic value of the South China Sea, the matter of how China reacts to international law offers insight into what kind of a rising power China is, and what kind of norms it hopes to shape for the region around it.

In his new book The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia, former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell presents a stark choice for Asia, largely shaped by great power competition between the United States and China. Campbell sees China as the determining factor: will its leaders end up adopting twenty-first-century rules and norms, or will they overtly push for a return to nineteenth-century spheres of influence?

The Permanent Court of Arbitration’s South China Sea ruling came and went mostly as expected, overwhelmingly favoring Philippine claims and ruling against China’s sweeping nine-dash line and “historical rights.” While many pundits have belabored the South China Sea dispute as the litmus test for the United States’s ability to preserve the status quo balance of power in Asia, this echo chamber has muddied the waters and distracted from the larger picture. The South China Sea case was just the first manifestation in a wider contest over international law, values and the future of the global order taking place in Asia.

The headline-grabbing decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration is about more than rocks and low-tide elevations (LTEs); and it is not, for that matter, about sovereignty, as Chinese commentators have insisted.