The South China Sea is the world’s busiest and most important waterway, serving as the crossroads of global capitalism and the connective tissue of Southeast Asia. With shipping routes, underwater resources, and hundreds of small islands claimed by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and others, the area stands among the world’s most contested regions. Since 1945, the United States Navy has dominated the area, but that hegemony is now in question as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) becomes more assertive as a rising power. In efforts to justify their clashing claims over the region, the United States and the PRC have launched campaigns against each other, producing a rhetorical crisis that may foreshadow war. To try to make sense of the rhetoric driving this crisis, the first part of this essay unpacks some of the colorful history of the South China Sea—its legacy of rogues, pirates, opium wars, and so on—to argue that it has always been less of a governed and ordered place and more of a transitory and heterodox space crisscrossed by overlapping intentions, designs, and dreams. From this perspective, any nation’s claims to sovereignty are fictions that aspire to be constitutive, albeit by erasing the constitutive claims of others. The second section of the essay then addresses the PRC’s use of “traumatized nationalism” to advocate for its rights in the South China Sea, while the third section tackles the United States’ use of “belligerent humanitarianism” to justify its actions. The essay concludes with an appeal for a postnational version of shared governance, called for in the name of defending the global commons from the militarized encroachments of nation-states.

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