Escalating tensions in South China Sea have epitomized US–China relations for nearly a decade. Warning signs of a possible collision between a rising China and steadfast US, bring to light the need to think about ways that can halt and reverse the intensification of their confrontational moves. The historical trends regarding the freedom of the seas suggest that a way out of this predicament is possible through negotiations. The tenets of the freedom of the seas seem to prevail once they begin to serve the challenger’s interest. Yet, the path toward interest alignment between the challenger and the norm‐maker, in this case between China and the US, depends on their ability to avoid any miscalculation that can provoke further escalation of tensions, which in turn may lead to violent confrontation between nuclear powers. A particular historical precedent between the US and Soviet Union demonstrates that a compromised solution can be found in upholding the normative framework based on the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). Emulating this approach may help the parties to avoid an unnecessary and avoidable military gamble in South China Sea.
- As history shows, freedom of the seas will prevail once it serves the challenger’s interests. China’s spectacular rise will eventually tip cost‐benefit considerations in favor of this regime. No regime other than freedom of the seas could yield higher returns for a seafaring power with global interests. China already avails itself of the freedom of navigation principles the US supports. It would not be in China’s own interest to subvert a regime that underpins its capacity to project power globally and serves well its growing ambitions.
- The Black Sea ‘bumping incident’ may serve as a precedent in the eventual Sino‐American negotiations in that it may help increase the perception of legitimacy and fairness, and provide the parties with more information about the cost and benefits of a deal. A deal based on the precedent of the ‘the Black Sea’ bumping would not directly address the many competing security and strategic interests of the parties. However, it would reduce risks, set the conditions for a system of interlocking bilateral agreements and produce positive externalities in the region.
- A bilateral and mutually acceptable interpretation of freedom of navigation would formally eliminate excessive maritime claims. In 1989, the existence of a framework of military cooperation, combined with the momentum of having avoided catastrophe, created the right conditions to reach a pragmatic settlement between Moscow and Washington. In the South China Sea, the challenge is to reach a similar outcome without having to resort to dangerous activities to encourage meaningful action
- By engaging in good faith, in a joint interpretation exercise of the sort the US conducted with the USSR, the Chinese leadership could preserve the interests of its future blue‐water navy and world‐class merchant fleet, and secure political capital vis‐à‐vis its domestic constituency.
Image: Official U.S. Navy Page via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)