China swings a small stick in the South China Sea

It’s hard to drive China out of the headlines. Yet a dispute between Iran and Great Britain, each of which has seized a tanker ship belonging to the other, has managed it in recent weeks — eclipsing a running feud between Vietnam and China, whose ships have squared off at Vanguard Bank, the westernmost feature in the Spratly Islands. For all that, the South China Sea dispute entails consequences at least as severe as those in the Persian Gulf. 

Iran claims control of the Strait of Hormuz. China is trying to consolidate control of 80 to 90 percent of the South China Sea, including waters allocated to its Southeast Asian neighbors under the “constitution of the oceans,” the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In both cases, the liberal system of maritime trade, commerce and military endeavors has come under assault. In both cases, it behooves lovers of freedom of the sea to help defend the system. Freedom of the sea is the centuries-old concept that the sea belongs to everyone and no one, with few, minor and narrowly defined exceptions. No state owns it, and no state can make laws dictating what others do there. Navies, coast guards and commercial shipping may ply the sea mainly as they see fit. 

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So these clashes are not merely about the Strait of Hormuz or the South China Sea. The world’s oceans and seas comprise a single interconnected body of water. Seafaring peoples must stand on the principle that maritime freedom is likewise indivisible.

It also should be nonnegotiable. Relinquish it in one body of water for the sake of amity with a strong but predatory coastal state such as China, and some other strong coastal state will mount a challenge in some other waterway. Small wonder that Iran and Russia began acting up in their own near seas around the time China started making headway with its South China Sea strategy.

This is a strategy animated by the long view. Back in 2009, Beijing submitted a map to the United Nations asserting “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters within a “nine-dashed line” enclosing that 80 to 90 percent of the South China Sea. Sovereignty means a government is the rightful lawgiver within geographic space delineated by borders. In other words, the ruling Chinese Communist Party claims the right to dictate what Chinese and foreign vessels and aircraft can and cannot do within the nine-dashed line — much as Chinese law governs what citizens and foreigners do within China’s frontiers on dry land. 

In effect, the South China Sea will become a seaward extension of Chinese territory if Beijing gets its way.

That’s the larger context surrounding the Sino-Vietnamese standoff. Here are some details. This month, the Chinese oil exploration vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 took station in an “oil bloc” off Vanguard Bank. As Professor Emeritus Carl Thayer, a Vietnam specialist from the University of New South Wales, explains, the waters around Vanguard Bank lie within the Vietnamese “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ), a 200-nautical-mile offshore belt of water space apportioned to coastal states by UNCLOS. 

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Exclusive means exclusive: Hanoi, not Beijing, enjoys sole rights to harvest natural resources from the water and seafloor within the Vietnamese EEZ. The seabed harbors an estimated 45 million barrels of oil and 172 billion cubic feet of gas — an energy bonanza for the petroleum firm and the country able to tap it.

Prosperity and sovereignty are immense stakes, and yet both Beijing and Hanoi have dispatched humble forces to pursue them. Hulking gray-hulled warships bristling with missiles are not menacing one another at Vanguard Bank. Nor do warplanes streak through the skies overhead, threatening to rain death from above. Instead, as the Singapore-based Straits Times reports, coast guards have faced off in the vicinity of Haiyang Dizhi 8. Coast guard cutters are not ships of war. These lightly armed or unarmed craft police waters under their home government’s jurisdiction. They enforce national law, rescue seafarers from danger and execute kindred administrative chores. Seldom do they take part in combat — still less as front-line fighting ships.

Nevertheless, it seems governments have made coast guards their “small stick,” their implement of choice for nautical diplomacy. Theodore Roosevelt liked to riff off the West African proverb “speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far.” Roosevelt used the “big stick” metaphor in domestic and international contexts, but in the saltwater realm, it referred to the U.S. Navy battle fleet, or “Great White Fleet.” For him, “going far” meant deterring the imperial Japanese and German navies from aggression in waters where America had important interests, mainly the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Western Pacific. Roosevelt believed flourishing a battleworthy, if modest-sized, fleet would deter German and Japanese leaders. Speaking softly — treating them with courtesy — would keep tempers from flaring.

In other words, Roosevelt was trying to discourage peer adversaries from military mischief-making at America’s expense and to do so without fighting — preferably without hard feelings. Beijing and Hanoi are trying to send the message that they have the right to make the rules regulating what happens in waters off the Vietnamese coast. Why not send the navy — the big stick — to broadcast that message? Well, navies fight for things that are in dispute; why admit there is a dispute? Coast guards administer waters that belong to you. By deploying white-hulled coast guard cutters — the small stick — both antagonists have announced, matter of factly, that they are enforcing the law in waters where they are entitled to do so.

Still, China holds a pronounced advantage in this contest, in the form of a great navy and shore-based planes and missiles that back it up. It clutches a big stick, whereas Vietnam does not — and Vietnamese leaders know their Chinese opponents will club them with it if they defy Beijing’s will. China, that is, has the option of escalating to military force if Vietnam remains recalcitrant. Vietnam has little such option. Theodore Roosevelt would disapprove of China’s purposes, but he would have to applaud its methods.

If China brandishes its small stick at the scene of conflict while making known its big stick waits in reserve, it may go far. To uphold its rights, Vietnam needs allies bearing brickbats of their own.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and author of the forthcoming “Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy.” The views voiced here are his alone.