After finally making a sensible move in the South China Sea, the Obama administration blew it at the last moment. In late October, the Aegis destroyer USS Lassen, a vessel optimized for air and missile defense, cruised past the Subi Reef, located more than 500 miles from China’s Hainan Island. Subi is one of the nine or so islands China has fabricated from undersea rocks. Until recently, Subi was underwater at high tide — but since China started reclaiming islands by dredging up the seafloor, Beijing has been using its recently created flyspeck at Subi to claim adjacent waters and skies as its property. The Lassen cruise was intended to demonstrate U.S. support for freedom of navigation in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. But by calling the expedition an “innocent passage,” anonymous officials from the Barack Obama administration bungled away the legal and diplomatic gains.
Officialdom must learn from the Lassen debacle. This means staying on message in future freedom of navigation challenges; predicting China’s next moves in the controversy; and sculpting tactics and operations to outwit and outmaneuver Beijing. The United States and its allies are in the right. Chinese officials correctly point out that fellow claimants, notably Vietnam and the Philippines, have reclaimed islets in the Spratlys and Paracels. But unlike Beijing, Hanoi and Manila do not claim the seas and airspace around their man-made islands or seek to dictate the terms whereby traffic may pass. Accordingly, the Vietnamese and Philippine claims pose little, if any, danger to free passage through regional seaways. (The U.S. Navy has challenged them anyway, just for good measure.)
China’s claims, by contrast, would erase the principle that no one owns the high seas. Beijing claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea, meaning that what China says goes. Sovereignty means nothing if not physical control of territory within certain borders on the map. Laws enacted in Beijing, that is, would supersede treaties and customary international law. To preserve the law of the sea, the United States and like-minded countries must gird themselves to defend it — and, indeed, the U.S.-led international order — in a drawn-out twilight struggle.