Written by Simon Reich.

In the summer of 2007, in a bizarre incident shown live on Russian television, scientists accompanied by a couple of senior politicians descended 4,300 meters to the floor of the Arctic Ocean in two Mir mini submarines. Divers then planted a Russian flag on the seabed, and Russia officially notified the United Nations that it was claiming the ridge as part of its sovereign territory.

In effect, the Chinese did the same kind of thing when they decided to start building islandsin the South China Sea by dredging sand from the bottom of the ocean.

In both cases, the countries were creating new sovereign territory.

One implication of their declaration was that anyone traveling within the 12-mile limit defined by international law was traversing through their sovereign waters, and could only do so subject to their approval.

Indeed, the Chinese take their claim so seriously that last week it even threatened that it “is not frightened to fight a war with the US in the region” to protect its sovereignty.

So the question is: why do American policymakers care about seemingly insignificant tracts of land so far away from America’s shores?

International law and American concerns

International law is pretty clear. You can’t declare any territory submerged under the sea outside the conventional 12-mile limit as your own, although you may have some privileges in the waters that lie immediately beyond it. You certainly can’t build up some land to above the waterline, thus creating an island, and call it part of your own territory. And in neither case can you legitimately control access by other vessels. Indeed, no international commission has upheld the Russian or Chinese claims. But that hasn’t stopped either the Chinese or the Russians from trying.

Americans, however, are pretty emphatic when it comes to denying such claims have any legitimacy.

In the Russian case, American policymakers were understandably caught off guard and bemused by this strange symbolic act.

But, at the same time, American policymakers have a right to be worried. Climate change could vastly increase sea traffic through the Arctic Ocean. And the future implications of Russian control of these sea-lanes have lots of potential downsides, given recent friction over Ukraine and Syria.

In the Chinese case, Americans were caught off guard and bemused when they shouldn’t have been.

The Chinese have been making claims for a long time about their sovereignty over huge portions of both the East and South China Sea. But in this case, Americans are worried about what China’s control of these waterways might do now to these commercial shipping lanes. Every year an estimated 50% of the world’s total of commercial trade plus oil passes through the area.

Global trade and American national security

The question of why we do care isn’t as obvious as it may seem.

America’s policymakers declare that the maintenance of global trade and commerce is in its national security interests. So America needs to keep these shipping lanes open to what they call “freedom of navigation.”

What that means is that they can send an Aegis class destroyer (so this was a powerful ship, not the equivalent of a coast guards vessel) and sail it past the Subi Reef (think of an island so small it would drive you mad if it was deserted and you had to live on it alone). It’s the equivalent of a drive-by – just to send a message.

Then you put the US secretary of defense on an aircraft carrier, the USS Roosevelt, and do it again – just to ensure that both the Chinese and America’s important regional allies understood the message:. “This isn’t your territory – and our mighty navy is not about to allow you to push us out.”

You might understandably assume that the Chinese, with their huge volume of exports, would also want to maintain open seas. And that the Russians would want to ship oil and gas to keep their economy afloat by water. So there is nothing to worry about.

But that’s where more modest concerns about global trade are replaced by those about deeper, hardcore national security interests. For Americans there is a difference between “our” open seas and “their” open seas.

Freedom of navigation and American doctrine

A central element of American national security doctrine is the notion of “Freedom of Navigation” or FON.

In effect, we (Americans) assert our right to sail where we want, when we need to. Behind that, however, is the deeply embedded concept of “control of the commons..”

Military historian Alfred Thayer Mahan popularized this idea over 130 years ago. He stressed the importance of America’s navy in ensuring the free flow of international trade. The seas were his “commons.”

Mahan argued that the British Empire was able to retain its commercial and military advantage by ensuring its ships could go anywhere. And that it could deny anyone else from doing so, if needed, in times of war. The overriding lesson is that wars are not won on the land. They are won on the sea by denying your adversary access to resources.

Today, Mahan’s work remains a core element of America’s military doctrine. It is taught to America’s naval officers at their major training academy where he himself once worked and where his work is still regarded as having biblical significance. But it no longer is just applied to commercial trade. It now is applied to the access of its military in all kinds of commons – in the air, on the sea, in space and even in cyberspace.

So American policymakers become frustrated when they believe Chinese hackers spy on the US or they build islands because it demonstrates that the US can’t “control” that commons.

The answering message is clear. As Ash Carter, the US Secretary of Defense, said in a speech about Russia last week “At sea, in the air, in space and in cyberspace, Russian actors have engaged in challenging activities.” Carter went on to make it clear that the US wouldn’t tolerate Russian efforts to control those domains. Responding to Chinese threats, he also clearly implied in the same speech that China’s continued activities could indeed lead to conflict.

The importance of chokepoints

But the sea remains the priority when it comes to controlling the commons.

And Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea offers the prospect that a key trading route located in a narrow strip of water between land masses either side, what they call a chokepoint could be closed by the Chinese, in the future, if not today.

The Malacca Strait on the Western end of the South China Sea is one chokepoint – the immediate object of the US’ concern last week. The Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, where much of the world’s oil passes through, is another. And, at least according to the US Congressional Research Service, the Arctic Ocean, where the Russian planted their flag, could become another.

So this leaves the Americans with an abiding dilemma.

They are saddled with a grand military doctrine built on the principle of keeping the globe’s key access points freely accessible to the US. The barely audible counterpart is that it should maintain a capacity to deny that access to any potential adversary in case of war. The doctrine, however, in practice can itself engender conflict – as we saw with the Chinese.

America may have a much bigger military capacity and even newer technologies that allow it to fight conventional wars. But defending the open seaways is expensive and often counterproductive. The Chinese, for example, are the world’s largest importer of fossil fuelsand China is far more dependent on foreign oil than the newly fossil fuel independent United States.

So critics ask why the US is defending the Persian Gulf when the Chinese are the prime beneficiaries?

The answer, it appears, has far more to do with military strategy than with global commerce.

Simon Reich is a Professor in The Division of Global Affairs and The Department of Political Science, Rutgers University Newark. This article was first published on The Conversation and can be found here. Image credit: CC by US Navy/Flickr.