Address by Peter Dutton at Chatham House, London, U.K., 16 February 2016
Reprinted in Naval War College Review 69.3 (Summer 2016): 5-13
Since the sixteenth century, Southeast Asia has been open to maritime trade and political engagement, advanced and supported by naval and other military power. Although historical evidence demonstrates that international trade occurred prior to that time, often robustly, at various times Chinese imperial leaders sought to dominate the economic, political, and security elements of the region. During these periods, Southeast Asia fell under the sway of China’s vast continental power and whatever naval power-projection capacities emperors built to augment it. At times, to serve the security and stability requirements of the dynasty, Chinese emperors sought to control or curtail regional trade. During these periods, Chinese continental power overwhelmed that of any regional state or combination of states, and therefore the primary locus of strategic action was continental. That is, China’s land power and subsidiary naval forces were the primary determiners of the region’s economic, political, and security order. With the introduction of superior Western naval technologies in the nineteenth century, however, the locus of strategic power in Southeast Asia shifted to the maritime domain, where it largely has remained since. This shift enabled seapower— eventually joined by power-projection capacities of airpower, space power, and cyber power—to ensure the South China Sea, and Southeast Asia more broadly, remained an integral component of an open, global, liberal, maritime order.
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?
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