The International Order And The South China Sea – Analysis


The new US National Security Strategy labels China as a “revisionist power”. That means the U.S. thinks China wants to change the existing rules, norms and values that govern relations between nations—the so-called ‘international order’ or the ‘rules’. The U.S. wants to maintain and enforce the ‘order’ that it helped shape and leads, and from which it continues to asymmetrically benefit. This dialectic is manifest in their contest for dominance of the South China Sea.

The present ‘international order’ began to take shape about two centuries ago in Europe when, “after decades of continental wars against French hegemony, a coalition led by Russia emerged victorious and established the “Congress system””.

According to historian Paul Schroeder, the statesmen at the time had learned “from bitter experience that war was revolution …. [and] that something else even more fundamental to the existence of ordered society was vulnerable and could be overthrown: the existence of any international order at all ….”.

After its victory in WWII the U.S. became the leader of the transformation to a new ‘international order’. This led to the Atlantic Charter and the founding of the United Nations. Ever since, the U.S. has “pursued its global interests through creating and maintaining international economic institutions, bilateral and regional security organizations, and liberal political norms”.;

This new ‘international order’ was—and still is—centered on US grand strategy. To the U.S. it comprises a rules-based free trade system, a hub and spoke military alliance system, multilateral cooperation and international law to solve global problems, and the proselytizing of democracy and other American ‘values’. The U.S. believes that challenging these principles, norms and values undermines its legitimacy and that of the ‘international order’.

So the U.S. wants to strengthen the existing status quo in which it is the dominant actor and patron. But China believes it is being constrained by the existing ‘international order’ whose origins have their roots in the colonial era and its ‘century of humiliation’. China wants respect for its enhanced status and its ‘core interests’ and therefore wants to bend the system to its benefit –just as the U.S. did during its rise, and still does when it is in its interest to do so. The U.S.

has refused to join the International Criminal Court, has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord, and frequently uses force and the threat of force in international relations in violation of the UN Charter. More recently it has withdrawn from the Transpacific Partnership trade agreement and turned its back on the existing free-trade system. This raises the questions of just what is the ‘international order’ applicable in the South China Sea and who is violating it.

The new US policy initiative of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ is driven by a perceived challenge by China to the existing ‘international order’. Brian Hook, a State Department advisor, asserts that that order “is the foundation of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and also around the world. When China’s behavior is out of step with these values and these rules, we will stand up and defend the rule of law.

According to then US National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, the core tenets of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ include freedom of navigation, the rule of law, freedom from coercion, respect for sovereignty, private enterprise and open markets ,and the freedom and independence of all nations. These are the principles that the U.S. applies to China’s policy and actions in the South China Sea.

Indeed, at the recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis asserted that China’s ‘militarization’ of its occupied features in the South China Sea is “for the purposes of intimidation and coercion” and challenged China to conform to the existing rules in the South China Sea.

But the U.S. and China have starkly different interpretations of how the ‘rules’ apply there and these different interpretations reflect diverging fundamental strategic core interests. The U.S. accuses China of ‘militarizing’ the South China Sea. But ‘militarization’ means different things to China and to the U.S. To China, its emplacement of ‘defensive weapons’ on its own territory does not constitute ‘militarization’ but rather an exercise of the right of self defense enshrined in the UN Charter. In China’s view the U.S. has clearly ‘militarized’ and continues to ‘militarize’ the region with its forward deployed troops, assets and patrols, including flyovers by its nuclear capable B 52 bombers. ;

Another prominent example of differing interpretations of the ‘rules’ is their respective takes on the meaning of ‘freedom of navigation’. The U.S. maintains its Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea are intended to preserve and protect freedom of commercial navigation for itself and others that is threatened by China’s claims and actions. But China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation and is unlikely to do so in peacetime. The problem is that the U.S. conflates freedom of commercial navigation with a military priority — freedom of navigation for its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance vessels and aircraft that search for China’s vulnerabilities. In so doing it makes frequent reference to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which it has not ratified and thus has little credibility interpreting it to its own benefit. China objects by word and deed to what it perceives as US abuse of ‘freedom of navigation’ and its “intimidation and coercion” in enforcing its interpretation.

Moreover the U.S. insists that China must base its maritime claims solely on it and abide by the arbitration decision against it reached under its auspices. But as a non-ratifier of UNCLOS, it knows it cannot be brought to a similar arbitration. And in the past, the U.S. –like China—has refused to accept an international judicial decision.

The US-China contest for dominance in the South China Sea is a reflection of a more fundamental battle for control of the ‘international order’ there and elsewhere—and that is why it is so fraught with danger.

*Mark J. Valencia, Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

This piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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