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Herbert London: Chinese Aggression In The South China Sea

Recognizing the unwillingness of the Obama administration to assert itself in foreign affairs, the Chinese government has engaged in a major strategic effort to maintain sovereignty over the vast South China Sea, a body of water larger than the Mediterranean and an area long recognized as sea lanes under international law. Fifty percent of the world’s maritime trade in tonnage passes through this body of water. By any stretch, this Chinese gambit is reckless, breathtaking, dangerous, and imperial.

Despite claims by the Philippines over the Spratly Islands and the Japanese over the Senkaku Islands, China is asserting its role as the Middle Kingdom. The purported Mischief Reef and other artificial islands built by China are what Americans admiral Harry Harris, calls “a great wall of sand” giving China control of South China sea waterways.           

These man made islands have runways that can support military flights. And there are reports heavy weapons have been deployed as well. Needless to say, Asian neighbors are concerned.

Japan has reinforced it’s naval force; Taiwan may secure nuclear weapons; South Korean military units have been put on alert and Philippines naval assets have gone through maneuvers in the area. U.S naval aircraft have flown over the islands as a way to reject Chinese claims of sovereignty, but they leave as Chinese planes scramble to intercept.

The United Nations convention on the Law of The Sea is unequivocal on what constitutes an island with territorial water (which does include man-made structures) but the Chinese government chooses to ignore the law. By dogged insistence, many nations have been persuaded by the ham-handed Chinese argument, but not those in the region. In fact, China has awakened a sleeping giant in the form of a South Korea, Japanese, Philippines, Indonesia, Australian defense condominium.

The Chinese strategy is clear: secure this crucial waterway for shipping as one part of its effort to build a new “maritime silk road.” However, this aggressive and impatient stance has mobilized resistance that the Chinese did not anticipate. Can China back down?

The investment in the artificial islands, and the assertion of territorial claims has put the Chinese government in an awkward position. Had the Chinese opened serious negotiations on the contested islands, notwithstanding several egregious encounters with Philippine fishing boats, some kind of compromise might well have been achieved. Now the stakes are high for all parties. For the U.S, this face down maybe a prelude, by Chinese naval forces, of hegemony in the Pacific. The Chinese blue water navy is nearing parity with the U.S naval presence in the Pacific, and if anticipated growth rates are realized, Chinese forces will outnumber the U.S in a few years.

It is clear the U.S does not acknowledge Chinese control of the South China sea. But is there more the U.S can do or is willing to do? And is this aggressive Chinese position a casusbelli?

First, the U.S can use its logistical support and diplomacy to reinforce the defense arrangements unfolding as a counter-weight to Chinese strategy. Two, the U.S should send a major naval task force to the South China sea as a symbol of American power and influence in the region, albeit the ships should remain twelve miles from the islands in question. Three, the U.S should tell our allies we are there to support their efforts, not to direct defense alliance activities.

Since the Chinese cannot easily retreat, the possibility for escalation is high. China may have overplayed its hand, but after all, it is the Chinese hand with power, and prestige attached to it. In his book Roots of War, Richard Barnet described American foreign policy as “permanent war” a belief that the U.S must remain “number one in the world.” This trope of the left is now challenged by twenty-first century reality: Americans weakness and apparent unwillingness to challenge aggression, brings us and the world closer to war. President Obama may have learned a lesson from the left’s attitude of yesteryear, but he is now obliged to consider it against the present backdrop of international challenges.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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