An international court ruled today on a challenge to China’s controversial bid to extend its sovereignty over vast swaths of the South China Sea. The Philippines brought the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in June 2013, but multi-national disputes over the island chains and surrounding waters date back centuries. In recent years, China has been building islands within an area it’s defined as the “nine-dash line,” and has been claiming control over a 12-mile radius surrounding each of the new landmasses.
The much anticipated ruling, however, may be moot, since China already has declared that it will not adhere to any ruling by the tribunal. Beijing’s truculence underscores the necessity of President Obama’s attempts to “rebalance” U.S. foreign and security policy toward the Asia Pacific. Moreover, the United States is obligated through defense pacts with both the Philippines and Japan to provide military assistance in the region. To vindicate the right of all nations to navigate these waters, the United States sent a missile destroyer last October within the 12-nautical mile zone China has claimed as sovereign waters. The U.S. Navy has continued to sail within the disputed waters, and it recently concluded a major exercise consisting of two carrier strike groups near the Philippines.
The islands themselves appear to be heavily militarized with ports capable of servicing naval vessels and runways long enough to support advanced military aircraft. This militarization has encouraged several countries to seek strategic partnerships with the U.S. This includes Vietnam, which has allowed U.S. naval forces increased access to its deep water ports. The Philippines has invited the U.S. forces back into several military bases for the first time since giving them the boot in the early 1990s. In addition to joint military aid, Washington is seeking to organize a vast free trade bloc that pointedly excludes China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would lower trade barriers while raising labor and environmental standards throughout the region.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has strongly supported TPP as a vital soft power complement to America’s military presence in the Pacific. “In fact, you may not expect to hear this from a Secretary of Defense, but in terms of our rebalance in the broadest sense, passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier,” Carter said. With China already refusing to adhere to any ruling made by the tribunal, the TPP is a potent tool Washington can use to assemble a regional coalition of nations to balance China’s economic and military clout.
While all the TPP countries have a common interest in unfettered access to the South China Sea’s shipping lanes, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, in particular, have competing claims on islands in the region. Additionally, the Philippines has expressed strong interest in joining the trade agreement. If Congress fails to approve the TPP, it would undermine America’s influence in the Asia Pacific and ability to act as a counterweight to China.
With more than half the world’s merchant ships passing through the disputed area, the United States and its Asian allies must not acquiesce in China’s aggressive bid to control the South China Sea. But our security strategy also needs a strong economic component. President Obama rightly envisions the TPP as a way to forge closer commercial and trade relationships with key regional partners and emerging markets like Vietnam. Not only will that make China’s anxious neighbors less susceptible to economic reprisals from Beijing, it will also give Americans access to the world’s fastest growing markets.