Editorial Board

South China Sea Follies

Chinese actions against U.S. military surveillance flights are hypocritical -- and shortsighted. Open seas have been essential to China's rise and prosperity.
Who's being provocative in Asia?

In one of the more famous scenes in "Top Gun," Tom Cruise buzzes a Soviet MiG, upside down, and flips its Commie pilot the bird. This is hardly how the Cold War rivals confronted each other in real life, of course. As it demands the respect due a new great power, China would do well to remember that.

According to the Pentagon, since this past spring fighters from a Chinese squadron based on Hainan Island have repeatedly harassed U.S. military planes conducting surveillance outside China's territorial waters but within its 200-mile "exclusive economic zone." In the most recent incident, on Aug. 19, a Chinese J-11 fighter performed a barrel roll over a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon submarine-hunting plane, at one point coming within 20 feet of the slow-moving jet.

China has defended this wannabe mainland Maverick and blamed the U.S. instead for "provocative" behavior. In its eyes, continued U.S. surveillance flights are a humiliating reminder of American military dominance in Asia, and proof that the U.S. is not really interested in establishing a "new type of major-power relationship," as President Xi Jinping's has vaguely called for. If China were the one conducting reconnaissance near the U.S., the semi-official Global Times wrote last week, "Washington would not accept it."

This is patently untrue. U.S. support for freedom of the seas is longstanding. Even during the Cold War, U.S. forces did not interfere with Soviet spy ships that lurked just beyond U.S. territorial waters. The American notion of what's allowed is shared by all but a couple dozen countries. China itself has conducted surveillance within the exclusive economic zones surrounding Guam and Hawaii. Last year, a Chinese ship spied on the Rim of the Pacific exercises held off Hawaii, even as other Chinese naval vessels were taking part.

The Chinese position is more than hypocritical; it's short-sighted. Open seas -- and the U.S. Navy's efforts to defend them -- have been critical to China's rise and prosperity. Almost 40 percent of the world's oceans fall within various exclusive zones. Abandoning the principle that all nations should be free to traverse these areas would put at risk the Mideast oil supplies that power China's economy, the sneakers and light bulbs that its factories export, and Beijing's own ability to counter piracy and weapons proliferation.

China's spurious defense -- that its domestic laws prohibit outside military activities in its exclusive zone, while U.S. law does not -- only reinforces its image as a rogue actor, ignoring rules that apply to everyone else. And this bolsters the argument the U.S. has been making to China's neighbors, several of which have territorial disputes with the mainland in the East and South China Seas: They should insist their claims be judged according to international laws and conventions, and not instead strike quiet deals with leaders in Beijing.

The deployment of a second U.S. carrier battle group to the region is a useful signal of American resolve, as are pledges to continue to patrol as close to China's territorial waters as necessary. Existing shared protocols meant to prevent collisions or other accidents at sea and in the air can work, if China chooses to follow them.

At the same time, other Asian nations need to clarify their position on patrolling within exclusive zones. Among those that have questioned the practice are Thailand, India, Malaysia and Vietnam, all of which have territorial disputes with China. Even Japan has expressed reservations, fearing the deployment of Chinese surveillance ships near its shores. Europe, for its part, could more forcefully communicate its support for the principle.

As its power grows, China can make a case for reconsidering some elements of the postwar international order, whose institutions and practices were established by Western countries. But unless leaders in Beijing want to transform the Pacific into a cockpit of conflict, this is one set of norms they should embrace.