13 July 2016

“A Maritime or Continental Order for Southeast Asia and the South China Sea?”—Address at Chatham House by CMSI Director Peter Dutton

Peter A. Dutton, “A Maritime or Continental Order for Southeast Asia and the South China Sea?” Address at Chatham House, London, U.K., 16 February 2016; reprinted in Naval War College Review 69.3 (Summer 2016): 5-13.

… Today, China’s land power is once again ascendant in the region in the form of missile, air, space, and cyber forces, augmented by a growing naval capability. Accordingly, the future locus of strategic power in the South China Sea—maritime or continental—is in play. So too may be the degree to which Southeast Asia, and especially continental Southeast Asia, will have freedom to choose trade and engagement policies without Beijing’s imprimatur. My central thesis is that China’s advances into the South China Sea pose a challenge to the capacity of naval and other power-projection forces to ensure an open economic and political regional order. In particular, China’s island building in the Spratly Islands creates a significant new strategic challenge to the open, global, liberal, maritime order in Southeast Asia.

Many have asked, what are the strategic implications of China’s island-building program in the South China Sea, and why has America reinvigorated its freedom-of-navigation program to begin to address it? …

As I see it, the purpose of the U.S. freedom-of-navigation program is to support the maintenance of a rules-based international order at sea. Some Americans assume that this maritime order exists on its own, that the security, economic benefits, and political stability that flow from this order exist without any effort from us, like the oxygen we breathe. This is simply not the case. The maritime order that has promoted global economic growth since 1945 and the peaceful expansion of state interests into the oceans of the world since 1982 is an order that was created and must be tended. This order is expressed through a structure of international law and institutions, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the customary law the convention reflects. But law never exists in a vacuum. Law exists because the sovereign authority of states establishes it, and it persists primarily because the power of states reinforces and sustains it. Thus, there is a fundamentally important correlation between law and power. Law cannot exist without power to reinforce it. And power without the limits of law is mere tyranny. This is as true at sea as it is on land. So the purpose of the freedom-of-navigation program, as I see it, is to marry American power with international law in order to reinforce the rights and obligations and the freedoms and duties that comprise international law of the sea. …

Concerning the new strategic dynamic, China’s island building has the tendency to turn the South China Sea into a strategic strait. In essence, it presents a situation for naval power much like a long Strait of Hormuz. How does the South China Sea, a body of water at least six hundred nautical miles wide, become a strait? If the Chinese place sea-denial military capabilities on the reclaimed islands, the South China Sea becomes a body of water that can be controlled from the land territory of a single country. When Chinese bases remained in the northern part of the South China Sea, it was clear they were defensive in nature and posed less of a threat to free movement of seapower in the South China Sea. But the new bases China has built on islands in the southern part of the South China Sea have military-sized runways, substantial port facilities, radar platforms, and space to accommodate military forces. The logical conclusion to draw from the addition of these facilities to China’s preexisting mainland bases is that the country seeks the capability to dominate the waters of the South China Sea at will. Building the islands is therefore, in my view, a significant strategic event. These actions leave the potential for the South China Sea to become a Chinese strait rather than an open component of the global maritime commons. …

… In closing, global maritime access and the security it provides, unlike the air we breathe, do not just exist as a state of nature. They must be established and then regularized through laws and institutions that support them. And then . . . they must be defended through political, economic, and military means when challenged.



Peter A. Dutton, Professor and Director China Maritime Studies Institute, U.S. Naval War College, Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing on China’s Maritime Disputes in the East and South China Seas, 14 January 2014.

China pursues its security through interior strategies that involve the development of rings of security around central areas of national interest. The Chinese have long felt vulnerable from the sea and their current maritime strategy seeks to reduce that vulnerability by extending a ring of maritime control around China’s periphery. China pursues this control through a combination of force structure development and legal assertions. Tensions arise because China’s strategy conflicts with the territorial claims, resource interests, and security concerns of other states in East Asia. China’s strategy also causes friction with the United States, which relies on freedom of navigation in maritime East Asia for American security interests and which must reassure regional allies and partners that American security guarantees are meaningful. In order to assure the position of the United States in East Asia, American policies must focus on maintaining the region as an open, maritime system. This requires continuous development of technological advantages to ensure the center of power in Asia does not migrate from the maritime domain to the continent. It also requires supporting the ability of allies, friends, and partners to resist China’s non-militarized coercion, and reinforcing the normative structure that supports the efficacy of maritime power in the region and around the globe. ….

Peter A. Dutton, Professor and Director, China Maritime Studies Institute, U.S. Naval War College, Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Committee Hearing on China’s Maritime Disputes in the East and South China Seas, 4 April 2013.

Questions presented: What are the origins of China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas? Upon what historical, geographic, or other bases does China justify them? What is China’s strategy for promoting its “9-dash line” claim? How does China address skepticism to this claim and how sustainable is this strategy? What impact will the Philippines’ initiation of South China Sea boundary arbitration proceedings have on the outlook for the resolution of other maritime boundary disputes in the region? What is the impact of China’s decision not to participate in the proceedings? How will the maritime boundary dispute in East Asia be resolved, if at all? What avenues have the greatest promise to yield an enduring solution? Discuss possible roles for international institutions, such as the United Nations (UN), and regional institutions, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). What should be the role of the US in achieving resolution and ensuring the resolution endures?

Peter Dutton, Associate Professor, China Maritime Studies Institute, U.S. Naval War College, Testimony before the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Hearing on Maritime Disputes and Sovereignty Issues in East Asia, 15 July 2009.

… 1. China’s South China Sea legal claims and the activities it has undertaken to enforce them pose a challenge to America’s regional and global maritime interests.

  1. China sees its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea as fundamentally nonnegotiable, yet close to being within its grasp to consolidate.
  2. China is a developing maritime power, but its maritime development is best characterized as a maritime enhancement to China’s continental strategic focus, rather than as a rising expeditionary maritime force.
  3. The U.S. should exercise renewed maritime leadership to ensure the regional and global access necessary to our national defense and to the security of the global maritime system generally. …

Peter A. Dutton, Associate Professor, U.S. Naval War College, Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Committee Hearing on The Implications of China’s Naval Modernization for the United States, 11 June 2009.

Questions presented: How does China’s unique view of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) impact regional security? Is there room for cooperation between the U.S. Navy and the PLAN on global maritime security? If so, how? …

There is some reason to hope that as Chinese naval power grows, Chinese leaders may gain insight into the benefits of the access-oriented bases of international law of the sea. China’s decision to participate in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, though couched in terms of authorization by the United Nations Security Council and the consent of the Somali Transitional Federal Government, is an encouraging opportunity to demonstrate the power of a global maritime partnership to bring about the order and stability necessary for the well-functioning of the global system on which the economic health and political strength of all major countries relies. Such operations enable China to participate meaningfully in the provision of the ‘global goods’ that come from maritime humanitarian and constabulary operations which are meaningfully supported by reasonable interpretations of international law of the sea.

Additionally, cooperation is more likely to occur between Chinese and American naval forces the further away they operate from the East Asian coastal regions. China’s relatively recent history of invasion from the sea seems understandably to have left scars in its national psyche that make it likely that the presence of U.S. naval vessels in its EEZ will remain a source of friction. However, China’s aspirations to play a global role as a responsible major power and its willingness to undertake security operations in parallel, if not exactly in direct cooperation, with the U.S. and other maritime states in the Gulf of Aden suggests that future such opportunities will present themselves and should be welcomed. The more that China works with the U.S. and like-minded states away from its shores, the greater the chance that the essential factor of trust will begin to enter into the equation of U.S.-China relations in East Asia. Should opportunities arise for cooperation in East Asia, such as humanitarian assistance or disaster relief, China should be welcomed as a partner. China’s new hospital ship may provide opportunities in this regard.

In the meantime, the U.S. needs to reassert its leadership role as an advocate for the importance of the access-oriented bases of international law of the sea. A comprehensive strategic communications plan should be developed and coordinated across the agencies of the U.S. government. Additionally, since UNCLOS is the basis of most modern international law of the sea—either as a matter of treaty responsibilities for parties, or as a matter of customary law for non-parties–the U.S. should ratify the Convention in order to more effectively exercise leadership from within its ranks, not just from outside them.

Peter A. Dutton, Associate Professor, China Maritime Studies Institute, U.S. Naval War College, Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on China’s Views of Sovereignty and Methods of Access Control, 27 February 2008.

The Chinese are seeking to alter the traditional balance of maritime rights between coastal states and the international community, especially in and above the Exclusive Economic Zone, as they seek to consolidate and extend sovereignty over their maritime periphery. China’s efforts to alter the balance of maritime rights are part of its overall anti-access strategy, and could have an impact on the perceived legitimacy of U.S. operations in the region, especially in times of crisis. In response, the U.S. should: promote military engagement to build trust; communicate the expectation that China must accept the burdens as well as the benefits of the international system; continue to exercise international prerogatives in offshore waters and airspace; commit to the preservation of the legal freedoms at sea that belong to the international community; and maintain its commitment to naval strength in East Asia. …