The Magazine

Sea of Troubles

The Pacific as naval battleground.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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The South China Sea is a nervous region, crowded with warships and commercial vessels. It is a region where sea denial is cheaper and easier to achieve than sea control. Is such a region particularly vulnerable to miscalculation or miscommunication? Despite the region’s volatility, Kaplan contends that the United States “must safeguard a maritime system of international legal norms, buttressed by a favorable balance of power regimen.” So the question is: Does the United States have not only the force but the will to do so in the face of China’s growing power? 

Recent actions seem to suggest that the answer to both questions is no. The Obama administration, motivated by its commitment to liberal internationalism, appears to be pursuing a policy of intentional decline. President Obama has made it clear that he rejects the idea that the United States should provide the public good of security, which underpins the very liberal world order that liberal internationalists favor. As we are seeing in Ukraine, American weakness has geopolitical consequences. The combination of a turbulent region, rising Chinese military power, and American retreat threatens the future of freedom, democracy, open economies—and a liberal world order. 

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.