Perverse Paradox: America’s Recent Legal Victory Over China Is Actually a Loss for Stability in Asia

The Centrifugal Forces of History Are Set to Tear Asia Apart


Last week, the world was pleasantly surprised by the recent United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitration panel that found that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea were utterly unfounded. For almost two decades, the Chinese have unlawfully laid claim to several islands and regions of the South China Sea that either fell under the territories of their neighbors, or were disputed by other Asian states. China asserted that their claims superseded the other Asian states’ claims because of their infamous Nine-Dashed Line approach to the map of the South China Sea. Under this approach, the Chinese deny the legitimacy of the existing territorial borders that maritime law demarcates and insists that they have a historic claim to the disputed territories. The Chinese claim is absurd and revanchist, yet the Chinese have maintained it for decades. They believe that whatever their ancestors in the Chinese Empire touched belongs to modern-day China. In their view, they would have maintained the territories of the South China Sea had it not been for the colonization by Western powers and the defeat by the former Japanese Empire in the so-called, “Century of Humiliation,” or as we call it, the 19th century.

Here is a cartoon of what the Chinese view as a “Century of Humiliation,” when their ancient state was divided internally among competing warlords, ruled by extremely weak central authority, and dominated by competing colonial foreign powers, such as Great Britain and Japan (to name a few). It is this 19th century history–this tale of endless grievance–that is the dominant narrative in Chinese foreign policy.

As such, the Chinese have been quite flagrant–particularly in the last decade–in their attempts to acquire as much territory as possible. Several of China’s Asian neighbors, naturally, disputed these Chinese claims and actions in the South China Sea. As such, they demanded legal arbitration from the UNCLOS committee. After years of deliberation, the UNCLOS committee found in favor of the Asian states arrayed against China (and, by extension, the United States). Thereby categorically denying all Chinese claims in the South China Sea, rendering illegal the recent Chinese acquisitions of disputed islands (as well as the construction of military bases on disputed reefs). What has the Chinese response been to this ruling? Predictably, it has doubled-down on their military claims and has intensified the scope and range of their operations in the region.

One of the small island reefs that China has claimed in international waters and established military bases upon.

So, rather than bringing stability to the region, the legal decision by the UNCLOS committee seems to be paradoxically exacerbating the growing rifts in the Asia-Pacific. It is also serving to further China’s resentment and sense of isolation that will only stoke the flames of belligerence on their part. Meanwhile, as China becomes increasingly–and egregiously–belligerent against its neighbors, and as the U.S. military’s deflated attempts at an “Asian Pivot” continues along its acidotic formulation, Asian states will be looking to new sources of strategic power for their own security.

Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy officers stand on guard
This photo is from February 2016 and is of two Chinese sailors standing guard at one of the illegal Chinese military installations on the Spratly (or, Nansha, according to Chinese revanchists) Islands. The islands are in international waters and are disputed between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and several other Asian states. China has taken the initiative of simply claiming them and installing permanent bases and forces on the islands in a flagrant “come and take them” approach to settling territorial disputes.

Now, let me be clear, this ruling will be instrumental for the United States and its allies in Asia moving forward. It will lend credence to whatever American actions must happen next to stabilize the rapidly destabilizing situation. However, in the short run, the decision will only make official America’s supremacy in the region whilst highlighting China’s political, legal, and diplomatic inferiority there. Thus, the Chinese will look increasingly toward their military to make up whatever deficits they believe they have in the political, legal, and diplomatic realms.

However, by itself, the ruling will do nothing to change the strategic paradigm in the region. China is still hulking a hegemon-in-waiting, demanding that all of the surrounding, smaller Asian states embrace their historical status as vassals in the larger Chinese Empire. Any attempt on the part of states like Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, or Vietnam (to name just a few) will only serve to incur China’s intensifying wrath. Traditionally, the states in question would look to the U.S. military for assistance. However, after a decade of neglect and serious defense budget cuts, the American military commitment to the region is dubious in the minds of several Asian leaders. Therefore, in states like Japan, drastic steps to defend themselves from China’s increasingly belligerent revanchism may compound the destabilization that is threatening to tear apart the Asian political order. Yet, these states may feel as though they have no recourse, given China’s unabashed hostility coupled with America’s relative absence in the region, even in spite of the recent ruling.

90,000 Tons of Diplomacy

Nine-Dash Line Map
Here is a map of China’s nine-dash-line (red lines) juxtaposed with what the UN says is an exclusive economic zone (blue lines). As you can see, the disputed territory (gray dots) are all within the UN zones, meaning that the Chinese have conveniently claimed that their interpretation of the boundaries fall well within their ancient empire.

The easiest solution that the United States could make would be to redeploy forces to the region beyond the haphazard way that the Obama Administration has committed itself to. The lackluster Asian Pivot has done two things: it has frightened America’s allies due to the ineffectual level of commitment and it has empowered Beijing for the same reasons. Essentially, all involved believe that America is not serious about upholding what it once deemed to be a strategically vital region for its national security. Understand that Asia is a vital region for America’s national security. It is home to probably the most economically dynamic states in the world–most of which are important trading partners for the United States. That alone means that the U.S. cannot simply turn its back on Asia. Therefore, there is but one remedy to the appearance that the U.S. is not serious in Asia: the U.S. should reinvest significantly in its defense budget and it should seek to build more warships and deploy them on a more permanent basis in the South China Sea.

The American military has been the security guarantor of last resort for much of the world. This is particularly true for the Asia-Pacific. During the Cold War, the United States rationalized that it needed to practice something known as Extended Deterrence, which essentially meant outstretching its nuclear umbrella to defend not just the United States from attack, but its critical allies. This also translated into the lower, non-nuclear forms of military policy. This explains why European defense budgets have remained so low today and why states like Japan can get away with doing a pretty decent job of adhering to the non-military clause of their constitution. The United States had always assessed that it was better to provide the security umbrella for these states, so as to keep interstate conflict to a minimum whilst increasing the economic advantages of trade. For the most part, it worked. But, for the last eight years or so, the U.S. has steadily decreased both its physical presence as well as the overall size of its military. As such, tensions and interstate hostilities in the Asia-Pacific (and elsewhere) have intensified. There is but one thing that can resolve this in America’s favor: increasing the overall size of the U.S. military, reorienting the military toward geostrategic regions of the world (i.e. Asia), and having a willingness to use that military force, whether as demonstrations against future aggression or to counter ongoing aggression.

The one thing that will reestablish both stability and American hegemony in the Asia-Pacific (and throughout the world) will be the reassurance provided by the presence of increased U.S. military forces in the region, particularly increased USN elements permanently deployed there. This was supposed to be the basis of President Obama’s highly-touted “Asia Pivot,” but it ultimately ended in ignominious failure.

The Obama Administration’s much-talked-about/little-acted-upon Pivot to Asia was supposed to facilitate this move. However, the idiotic defense budget cuts championed by fiscal hawks in the Republican Party on Capitol Hill was adopted with great gusto by an Obama Administration (and wider Democratic Party) intent on implementing its anti-military vision, which meant that the much-needed pivot happened in name only. This, then, alerted the always-paranoid Chinese to the fact that, after years of fighting in the Middle East, the United States was intent on reasserting itself in the Asia-Pacific. This is something that the Chinese viewed as a direct threat to their strategic aims for the region. This only sent the Chinese deeper down the path of militarization (though, it is likely that they would have gone down this path anyway, given their revanchist foreign policy objectives). It also effectively meant that the United States, once the pivot was announced, needed to either put-up-or-shut-up. If it did not, the Chinese would become committed to an overzealously militarized foreign policy in the region which would prompt American allies to seek a new paradigm, whereby they would either accommodate China’s rise, or they would develop their own military capabilities to buttress America’s lack of commitment. While these states should develop their own capabilities, the U.S. should be cognizant that a) the more of their own capabilities that these states develop will undoubtedly lead them to greater independence from their fickle American partner and, b) the historical and cultural inclination of most Asian states has been to (at times, begrudgingly) placate and accommodate the Chinese hegemon. They have done this, in many cases, only because China is so close geographically, so large, and so powerful, whereas the other Asian states tend to be smaller.

Such a change could be catastrophic for American foreign policy.

In order to counter what noted Chinese scholar Minxin Pei describes as most Asian states’ penchant for accommodating the Chinese juggernaut, the smaller, vulnerable Asian states need a reliable American partner–especially in the military realm. It’s not enough to simply train and operate with states like Taiwan or the Philippines. The U.S. must be ever-present to reassure its understandably twitchy allies in the region that it is not going anywhere, and that it will not tolerate the kind of revanchist brinksmanship that China has been subjecting its neighbors to for some time now.

The U.S. Asian Pivot has failed thus far, meaning the recent UNCLOS will only exacerbate Chinese aggression, as it will feel as though its back is up against a proverbial wall.

America’s “Asia Pivot” was meant to show strength in the face of an intransigent rising China whist reassuring frightened allies in the region. It did just the opposite. Now, as threats everywhere multiply–thereby straining the U.S. military’s ability to deal with the various threats simultaneously–American military leaders have been faced with the compounding problem of a drastically declining defense budget, coupled with antipathetic popular sentiment toward greater U.S. military engagements abroad. This has only exacerbated the dominant narrative in most foreign capitals that the U.S. is in decline, its military is permanently weakened, and illiberal regimes like China are on the rise. If the U.S. under the next President–whoever it may be–cannot reassert its leadership in a consistent and believable way, then it will never be able to bring about the kind of stability that it had created for the region following the Cold War.

UNCLOS violation
China’s artificial island construction and territorial reclamation projects in disputed waters is illegal, according to international court.

In and of itself, the recent UNCLOS decision will do little to prevent the Chinese from holding–and possibly taking more–disputed islands in the South China Sea. The Chinese are not only interested in taking this territory as a point of cultural pride, but also because they have convinced themselves that the island chain in question is necessary to better defend the sea routes into China from foreign invasion (harkening back to their aforementioned “Century of Humiliation.”) Also, it is widely believed that there are rich deposits of natural gas and other natural resources that China covets in the disputed regions of the South China Sea. As such, it is highly unlikely that the Chinese will stand down from their claims here.

The UN Security Resolution 687 was supposed to prevent Saddam from being a threat once more following the successful end of combat operations in Desert Storm. Yet, it did little to deter Saddam’s commitment to being a regional destabilizer, as evidenced by the decade-long military operations directed against his regime by the Clinton Administration and, of course, the George W. Bush Administration in 2003.

While the UNCLOS decision is important for laying the legal and moral justification for an increased American military presence in the region, its mere existence will not change the strategic reality. In much the same way that UN Resolution 687, which among other things, was designed to prevent Saddam from being a threat following Desert Storm, did little to prevent Saddam Hussein from being a continual threat to regional stability in the 1990s, the UNCLOS decision will likely do little to deter China from further aggression. Indeed, by isolating China from the international community it will likely induce them toward greater and more extravagant actions. This will only intensify the danger to our Asian allies and our interests in the region. Therefore, the only solution is greater military commitment and a willingness to enforce the UNCLOS decision, along with our Asian partners.

An Ode for Stability

To conclude, the Chinese have not been beaten back into legal submission by the recent UNCLOS ruling. They have likely been agitated toward greater aggression on a shorter time-table, assuming that they can get away with bloody murder on the high seas, so long as President Obama remains in office. As such, the U.S. should expect greater risk to its allies and interests in the Asia-Pacific. What’s more, the longer that America’s listless strategic pivot to the region remains so, it is likely that states like Japan will hasten toward full rearmament of their military. Such a scenario is currently being discussed by the uppermost Japanese leadership today. Meanwhile, states like Taiwan will be increasingly threatened by Chinese revanchism (who claim Taiwan as their lost province). Vietnam is also a constant target for Chinese bullying.

Defense Spending
The old trope that the U.S. “spends more than the next ten countries combined” is technically true, but much of that money is spent on non-warfighting capabilities (i.e. civilian personnel costs). If you look at the chart, American commitment in terms of military personnel is relatively small. However, the real important figures derive from Japan, which is smaller in every way compared to China. How effective in combat against China (or, rather, how believable their combat prowess is in Beijing) will depend upon how serious Beijing thinks America is in defending states like Japan. Courtesy of IHS Jane’s.

All of these states are looking to a mostly absent-minded United States to enforce the standards of the international legal regime. Yet, thus far, the U.S. has done little save for issue pithy statements on the matter. The more time that passes with American inaction, the less likely that the United States will find a stable Asia awaiting its return whenever it does decide to fully reengage with the region. What it will likely find is a region in the midst of a massive arms race, with everyone standing in a circle, pointing weapons at each other, waiting for the next guy to pull the trigger and start a horrific chain reaction. America is the one force that can stabilize the entire region. It just needs to make the effort.

The UNCLOS decision was a necessary first step, but it was not the last step. What is needed is American resolve and leadership. Right now, these are the two things lacking most. Therefore, the perverse paradox of the legal victory is that it will herald far more instability than previously thought possible in Asia.


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