The United States has gotten China wrong for the better part of four decades. Politicians, policy makers, academics, businessmen, and others naïvely assumed that China’s communist totalitarian system would evolve toward democracy and freedom. These elites did not understand that engaging with the 94 million-member Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is like having unprotected sex.
It is only recently that those who control the commanding heights in the United States have given due regard to the reality that CCP-controlled China, which regards democracy as an existential threat, is a menace to American’s security and prosperity. The reasons why are apparent from China’s activities in the South China Sea.
If there is to be a great power military conflict in the future, it will most likely involve a rising China challenging a predominant America. The list of China’s strategic initiatives is lengthy; everything from becoming a world leader in science and technology to economics and business to military might. The U.S. now faces a rising power, a confident, ambitious country that wants to supplant America’s role as the current global hegemon.
This goal is demonstrated by China’s actions in the South China Sea, which is strategically important to China’s goals and is one of the battlefields on which the competition between China and the United States will play out.
The South China Sea is a part of the western Pacific Ocean and borders southern China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. More than $5 trillion in trade flows through it, roughly 30 percent of all global maritime trade. A major shipping route, the sea also accounts for about 10 percent of the world’s fisheries and a potentially significant amount of oil and natural gas deposits.
As the region’s link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the South China Sea is a vital trading and military route for the countries that surround it as well as for larger Asian economic powers, including Japan and South Korea. The country that controls the South China Sea has a strategic advantage in the region and a huge influence over global seaborne trade.
Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CCP, claims all of the South China Sea — lock, stock, and oil barrel — as sovereign territory. He backs up his claims by building aggressive military installations on existing islands, dredging new islands out of the sea itself and building airfields, “missile defense systems” and harbors that are essentially naval bases.
China bases its claims to the South China Sea on historical records from the Zia and Han dynasties that are thousands of years old. It is unlikely that Japan, Vietnam, and South Korea will stand by while China exploits them. The United States, as an ally of Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, could be drawn into disputes surrounding these claims. It is worth noting that actions by China’s maritime forces aimed at the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea are another area of concern.
Following an appeal by the Philippines that China’s actions violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in 2016 that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights, while also finding that there had been several violations of the obligations set out in the Convention.
China refused to accept the court’s ruling and has continued militarization of the artificial islands with impunity. This is an expression of China’s newfound military and political power and its might-makes-right approach to international affairs. China’s expansion in the South China Sea is equivalent to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014.
America should not try to contain China unilaterally, but rather assemble a broad coalition with nations including India, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines to confront, resist, and sanction China in the same way as it partnered with NATO and others to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War.