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Securing Sovereignty: When Should America Weigh In?

Author: Mira Rapp-Hooper
April 21, 2014
The National Interest


In mid-February, the United States government's long-standing position that it does not opine on sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Seas was given an important and long-implicit caveat: Washington does insist that all sovereignty claims accord with international law, and as has long been stated, these cannot rely on coercion. This position, articulatedin testimony by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Russel, took on new significance just a few weeks later, when Moscow unilaterally upended Ukrainian sovereignty in its occupation and annexation of Crimea. This updated position on Pacific maritime disputes and ongoing events in Eastern Europe raise an important question: For the United States, which aims to protect the status quo and the international legal principles that support it, when is the right time to opine on a sovereignty dispute? The Ukraine crisis has demonstrated that there are several reasons why it may be advisable for the United States to take a position on some Pacific sovereignty disputes sooner rather than later if Chinese maritime revisionism persists. This is because deterring prospective opportunism may be easier than compelling a challenger to reverse course once he has executed a fait accompli. There are also, however, several drawbacks to clarifying sovereignty positions too soon, and these must be enter into calculations as Washington considers whether and when it should update its public position on maritime sovereignty disputes.

Washington's longstanding position that is does not comment on sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas, including those that involve its treaty allies, has some clear advantages. In any given maritime conflict, the United States has a limited national interest at best, and taking sides could commit it to a future conflict in which it has little stake. This nuanced position allows Washington to minimize the risk of moral hazard by allies and leaves some room for maneuver in the case of crisis. It also permits the possibility of accommodation with Beijing over these disputes, and major-power cooperation more broadly.

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