Why Is Washington the Policeman of the South China Sea?

For months, the United States has contemplated launching a series of naval patrols in the South China Sea.  Pentagon leaders are especially determined to defy China’s position that building “reclaimed” or artificial reefs and islands also creates rights to new territorial waters surrounding those entities.  On October 27, the Navy sent the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen on a “freedom of navigation” patrol within 12-miles of a man-made island in the Spratly chain.  That action triggered an immediate outburst, with China’s Foreign Ministry admonishing the United States to “immediately correct its mistake and not take any dangerous or provocative acts that threaten China’s sovereignty and security interests.”

Washington’s action is a dangerous escalation of already worrisome tensions in the South China Sea.  It is understandable that, as the world’s leading maritime power, the United States is unwilling to accept Beijing’s extremely broad territorial claims in that body of water.  The full extent of China’s claims would cover nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea.  U.S. officials stress the importance of the sea lanes that pass through the area.  They note that some $5 trillion in oceanic commerce is involved, and that unimpeded navigation is especially crucial to the trade and overall economies of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other U.S. allies in East Asia.

The importance of continued free navigation in the South China Sea is obvious, but two points are relevant.  First, China has made no credible threat to disrupt the trade routes.  Indeed, given China’s vast stake in international trade, threatening trade flows in any region would be risky to the point of self-destructive folly.  Second, one has to ask why the United States is expected to take the lead in dealing with this issue.  A Reuters article notes that “U.S. allies such as Japan and Australia, are unlikely to follow with their own direct challenges to China, despite their concerns over freedom of navigation along vital trade routes.”

If China truly poses a threat to trade routes that are so essentiall to countries in the immediate neighborhood, why aren’t those countries initiating naval patrols to challenge Beijing’s claims?  Why is the United States, whose homeland lies thousands of miles away, the only challenger?  The answer is that such reticence by the East Asian countries continues a long-standing habit of free riding on U.S. security exertions.  That is never going to change unless and until Washington conveys the message to those countries that the United States is through bearing the expense and incurring the risks of dealing with matters that are (or at least ought to be) far more important to them than to us.

The trajectory of U.S. policy in the South China Sea creates a crisis atmosphere and entails the grave risk of a direct military confrontation with China.  The potential benefits flowing from an aggressive U.S. policy are, at most, quite modest.  China’s East Asian neighbors should not be allowed to stand on the sidelines while Washington does their dirty work for them.