Asia’s New Battlefield: The South China Sea Disputes


Singapore – “The vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China,” claimed Chinese President Xi Jinping during his intimate retreat in Sunnylands with his American counterpart, Barack Obama, back in 2013. Optimistic about a new era of cooperation, Xi espoused a “new model of great power relations.” Three years on, the two superpowers are on a collision course in the South China Sea.

Four centuries after the publication of British jurist John Selden’s “The Closed Sea,” which made a (dubious and self-serving) case for great powers’ exclusive sovereign control of international waters, China is inching closer to transforming the world’s most important waterway —- hosting a third of global maritime trade, four times oil trade than Suez Canal, and a tenth of global fisheries resources —into a domestic lake.

In direct rebuke of Hugo Grotius’ call for “Open Seas” (Mare Liberum, published 1609), which served as the basis for the development of modern international maritime law, Selden argued:”The Sea, by the Law of Nature or Nations, is not common to all men, but capable of private Dominion or proprietie as well as the Land.” No less than China, which calls the South China Sea its “blue national soil”, has taken up the cudgels for Selden’s doctrine of exclusive waters. And the whole Asian security architecture as well as the fate of $5 trillion in annual trade is at stake.

It is not a battle between China and America, but between benign status quo and dangerous revisionism. It is a contest between a giant revisionist power, China, and a whole host of smaller and outgunned littoral countries, from Malaysia to the Philippines. The South China Sea disputes and their global reverberations were well on display during the latest edition of the Asian Security Summit, better known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, which brought together the world’s leading defense officials and experts in Singapore.