In recent months, the world's attention has been focused on China's provocative behavior in its Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute with Japan, and for good reason. That dispute demands our utmost attention, and poses a tangible risk of for interstate conflict in the years to come.
However, the issue of maritime sovereignty in the East and South China Seas encompasses more than simply China's territorial disputes with its neighbors. It also involves a volatile disagreement between the U.S. and China over the type of sovereignty China is claiming in its 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, and specifically the right of the U.S. military to conduct surveillance operations there.
Our dispute derives from differing interpretations of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, a treaty the U.S. has not signed but whose maritime boundary distinctions we observe in practice. Under Beijing's interpretation of the treaty, China enjoys expansive sovereign rights in its EEZ, including the right to deny the U.S. military access to conduct surveillance operations. China is not alone in this interpretation – at least 16 other countries share Beijing's position – but China is the only country that has operationally challenged U.S. forces, leading to more than a half-dozen dangerous confrontations at sea over the past decade.
The U.S. and most countries of the world reject this interpretation of UNCLOS, arguing that China cannot treat the Exclusive Economic Zone as if it were China's sovereign territorial sea. And U.S. scholars have thoroughly debunked Beijing's reading of the treaty.
Yet the confrontations continue, as an incident with the USS Cowpens and a Chinese amphibious dock ship in December 2013 vividly demonstrated. If the U.S. and China don't come to a modus vivendi on a code of maritime conduct in the Western Pacific, the possibility for escalation and confrontation is very real. The U.S. has in the past attempted to create a code of conduct with China on these matters; however, talks have been stalled on Chinese demands that the U.S. end arms sales to Taiwan, put an end to surveillance activities in its EEZ and repeal provisions of the 2000 National Defense Authorization Act, which limits U.S. military cooperation with China.
Further aggravating the situation is the poor military-to-military relationship between our two countries. Though we have taken some small steps forward engaging in recent years, military-to-military cooperation remains the most underdeveloped and concerning aspect of bilateral relations.
While the political and professional Chinese elite are experiencing an unprecedented level of exposure to the outside world, this encouraging trend has not reached the People's Liberation Army, which tightly restricts contacts with the U.S., particularly for junior officers. By design, the PLA ranks remain conspiracy-minded, hawkish and insulated from the Western world and even to liberal influences within China.
This is worrying because many Chinese nationalists inside and outside the PLA see the U.S. as engaged in a containment strategy designed to prevent China's rise and undermine its security. Firebrand nationalists are taking to the airwaves and webpages to denounce a U.S. foreign policy they believe is encouraging provocative behavior from Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. And China's leaders are increasingly pandering to these vocal nationalists, escalating their own hawkish rhetoric and in the process restricting their freedom to maneuver in the future.
When the U.S. and other countries have faltered in the face of this policy, as was the case with the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal, China has advanced its goals and established a new status quo. However, where the U.S. has held firm in its position and demonstrated resolve, Beijing has backed down.
The same resolve must be committed to surveillance activities in China's EEZ. America's position on this issue is not only within the U.S. national interest, it is fully supported by domestic and international law.
Were we to accept China's interpretation of UNCLOS, U.S. military vessels could be barred from operating in large swathes of the world's oceans, an outcome that is clearly unacceptable to Washington — and one that was never envisioned by the drafters of UNCLOS.
The U.S. should do everything at its disposal to ensure future incidents do not escalate, but it must reaffirm that U.S. policy will not be subject to fear, intimidation, coercion or reckless behavior from Chinese naval forces.
Furthermore, Washington must do a better job drawing clear red lines around unacceptable behavior in the maritime arena, and enforce those red lines when they are crossed. To that end, the U.S. should continue an active schedule of surveillance activities, patrolling and freedom of navigation operations.
America carries a special burden on this issue. While Beijing views its neighbors as subservient regional powers subject to intimidation, the Chinese leadership acknowledges and respects American power, even as they increasingly resent it. As perhaps the only country capable of drawing and enforcing red lines with China, America's allies in the region are depending on the U.S. to be a firewall against Chinese aggression in the Western Pacific.
Jeff M. Smith is the director of South Asia Programs and the Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.