Does Freedom of Navigation ring across the South China Sea?


Regional fence-sitters on the South China Sea issue might be better convinced by highlighting China’s disregard for peaceful settlement of disputes, not contested rules of the sea, writes Xiaodon Liang.

On January 30, the USS Curtis Wilbur sailed past Chinese-controlled territory in the Paracel Islands. The Wilbur operation was an exercise of innocent passage, traditionally a right of seafarers under the norm of freedom of navigation. During this episode and a similar operation by the USS Lassen last year, the United States relied heavily on freedom of navigation to justify its naval operations in the South China Sea—and appealed to other countries to rally behind it.

Even and equitable application of rules of international behaviour, however, seldom benefit all states equally. The equity of rules matters because it determines how strongly appeals to those rules resonate with non-claimant parties. In appealing to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea dispute, the United States has attempted to regionalise, if not globalise, its complaints about Chinese behaviour.

Non-claimant states, from US allies in Northeast Asia to key regional fence-sitters like Indonesia and Singapore, have heard this appeal but remain unconvinced that Chinese rule-breaking is truly their problem. “Non-claimant Perspectives on the South China Sea Disputes,” a roundtable published in the January 2016 issue of the National Bureau of Asian Research’s Asia Policy journal, found that states subordinate their maritime concerns to commercial interests, or are only motivated to protest Chinese action in light of broader strategic considerations.

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