We tend to distinguish, at least for analytical purposes, law, diplomacy, and the use of force as tools for the conduct of foreign policy. Each typically gets a separate chapter in the international relations textbooks and a separate week on the syllabus of the typical introductory IR course. But, as a story by Helene Cooper in today's New York Times illustrates, this can be misleading. In reality, the military may provide the means by which legal claims are asserted, naval officers may be required to engage in diplomacy while on alert, and a ruling by an international arbitration panel may nudge the world toward war.
Cooper's reporting from on board the U.S.S. Chancellorsville (CG 62), a U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser, recounts the ship's participation in a freedom of navigation (FON) exercise in the South China Sea. Her story, which includes conversations between the Chancellorsville's officers and those on a Chinese ship tailing the Chancellorsville, provides a glimpse of the legal/diplomatic/military confrontations that are taking place with increasing frequency as China attempts to establish a claim to sovereignty over much of the South China Sea even as the United States attempts to rebut that claim.
Today U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work told reporters that the U.S. has told China it will not recognize an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea should one be declared there. "We have spoken quite plainly to our Chinese counterparts and said that we think an ADIZ would be destabilizing. We would prefer that all of the claims in the South China Sea be handled through mediation and not force or coercion," Work said. Transits through the South China Sea like the one conducted by the Chancellorsville are how the United States backs up its verbal representations to the Chinese.