“The Commons Must Remain The Commons”

China continues to assert itself and threaten freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and East China Sea, writes James R. Holmes, who explores what other stakeholder nations can do to safeguard “the commons.” From The Diplomat:

What can guardians of free navigation do about this challenge? Channeling Clausewitz, Sir Julian Corbett would describe this as a contest of negative object, an endeavor aimed at keeping an adversary from taking something. In wartime, negative aims bestow certain advantages on the defender, who mostly wants to frustrate his opponent. But the advantages of protecting the status quo are less pronounced in peacetime strategic competition. In fact, the initiative and passion probably go to the antagonist entertaining a positive aim—the antagonist intent on wresting something away. He has the incentive to amend or overturn what looks like an unjust state of affairs. Otherwise he would never have opened the struggle in the first place.

And perhaps most critically, it’s hard for custodians of the status quo to turn the tables, seizing the offensive in peacetime competition. Corbett proclaims that “true defensive” is not passive defense—parrying an enemy’s blows without seeking offensive action—but biding one’s time while awaiting a chance to strike. That idea is readily intelligible in wartime. A combatant waging “active defense” looks for opportunities to use his forces to land a heavy counterpunch. The process isn’t so straightforward in peace. If Beijing keeps asserting title to the waters and airspace within the nine-dashed line, for instance, and if it deploys ships and aircraft to uphold its claim, what precisely would be the equivalent to a wartime counterattack?

It will take some artistry. Persuading seagoing nations to make common cause would be immensely helpful from a diplomatic standpoint. Easier said than done, I know. Or, appealing to international tribunals would provide little immediate relief, since it’s doubtful Beijing would ever allow foreign magistrates to adjudicate the limits of Chinese sovereignty. Still, making the attempt would brand it an international scofflaw.

Reinvigorating and stepping up freedom-of-navigation operations in disputed waters would put steel behind the international community’s defiance while mounting a sustained presence on blue international soil. Multinational task forces could ply regional waters, ostentatiously conducting lawful functions—flight operations, underwater surveys—that Beijing has tried to proscribe. In effect the seafaring states would dare China to take on the entire world.