Key point: What America needs is a maritime counterinsurgency against China.
The rule of an international system that upholds the legal and philosophical principle of the “freedom of the seas” ranks among America’s most important if uncelebrated national interests. The preservation of a free and open maritime order is imperative for a country whose ability to connect with over 80 percent of the world’s population depends on overseas transportation. For nearly four centuries, the oceans have held the status in legal principle (later codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) of a global commons, over which national sovereignty is limited and based strictly on adjacent landward holdings. Yet this vital architecture is under grave threat in the South China Sea. China is working aggressively to not just gain military dominance, but even more importantly, to impose an alternative regime of governance on this vital waterway based on Chinese domestic laws and Beijing’s continental view of maritime sovereignty. The present U.S. approach to the problem does not address this core dimension of China’s aggression, for the desultory show of the flag in U.S. Freedom of Navigation operations as presently construed lacks staying power and therefore decisive strategic effect. But China’s victory thus far is by no means final. For the United States and its allies to stage a recovery, it is necessary to reframe our understanding of the Chinese campaign in the South China Sea and reorient U.S. strategy to defeat it.
The Battle of Legal Regimes