A war of words has begun between China, the rising global hegemon, and the United States, the established global hegemon, over regional differences in the South China Sea.
Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter admonished China for its aggressive act of creating artificial islands out of some of the reefs, islets, atolls and cays that make up the Spratly Islands. China’s intent is to establish a permanent presence in order to bolster claims of sovereignty against China’s neighbors.
“There should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants,” Carter said.
Regarding reports of China’s deployment of mobile artillery pieces on one of the reclamation projects, perhaps to threaten a nearby Vietnamese island, he said, “We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features.”
At the conference, the chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris continued to dismiss the Chinese island building as a “Great Wall of Sand.”
China’s People Liberation Army Deputy Chief of Staff Adm. Sun Jinguao coolly parried the American barbs at the Singapore meeting. “We cannot live in the 21st century with outdated thinking from the age of colonial expansion or the zero-sum mentality of the Cold War.”
He acknowledged the military development of the reefs “for the purpose of improving the functions of the relevant islands and reefs and the working and living conditions of personnel stationed there.”
Sun reminded the conference that the U.S., in China’s opinion, was not a party to the dispute. “When dealing with maritime disputes with relevant neighboring countries, China has always kept in mind the larger interest of maritime security,” he said.
After his speech, almost all the neighboring countries with an interest in the islands — Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia and Vietnam — joined the U.S. in condemning China’s aggression.
Over the coming months, the accusations and castigations will continue from all parties. The good news is that it is highly unlikely anything more will come from this than jawboning.
Beijing is supremely confident that it will prevail not only in the Spratly Islands, which Beijing calls the Nasha Islands, but also in its claim of up to 90 percent of the South China Sea. According to Sun, China has long since established “sufficient historical and legal evidence” for “its indisputable claims of rights and interests” in the South China Sea.
There is zero chance that China will relinquish its island building in the Spratlys or its claims on the South China Sea.
Soon after the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Chinese Foreign Ministry recommended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the appropriate international body to negotiate maritime rules for the region. The Foreign Ministry declared Carter’s remarks “out of step.”
Vietnam and the Philippines will back down quickly from challenging China if the U.S. loses interest. No stable Asian leadership wants to pick a fight in the face of China’s economic might. In fact, there may already be a hesitation. In the past, Hanoi has condemned China for its claims while Vietnam undertook its own land reclamations in the Spratlys. After the Singapore meeting, however, Carter visited Vietnam and advised its government to halt its development.
China’s immediate aim is to discourage U.S. bellicosity. Nonetheless, China expects the U.S. will demonstrate its resolve. There may well be more provocative overflights by the U.S., and Australia may join in the exercises. In response, China may declare an air defense identification zone. The U.S. may also send sorties through the 12-mile zones around China’s claims. There may even be a collision at sea as all sides test limits. But then what? Economic sanctions against China are folly. A military confrontation under Barack Obama’s administration is highly improbable.
Great Wall at sea
China’s initiatives in the Spratlys are part of a larger geopolitical strategy. China intends to create the conditions for it to dominate the region in the 21st century. What Harris mocks as a “Great Wall of Sand” is what Beijing thinks of as a Great Wall at sea in order to block any military threat that the U.S. and its allies might contemplate from the east. President Xi Jinping’s regime sees China, rather, as a land-based power that must grow westward.
At Singapore, Sun emphasized Xi’s policy of “one belt, one road,” dating from 2013. This metaphorical language refers to the legendary Silk Road as both an economic belt stretching to Europe and a maritime route that reaches Africa.
The immediate geopolitical goal of Xi’s belt and road is that China seeks to secure its alliance with Russia. China also intends to induct Iran, Pakistan and India into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a step in consolidating its power across Central Asia and South Asia.
In the near term, then, there is zero chance that China will relinquish its island building in the Spratlys or its claims on the South China Sea.
For the long term, the U.S. needs to develop a strategy that accepts and adapts to China’s potency in its region as well as China’s outsize ambitions in Eurasia. The U.S. cannot continue to maintain credibility as a global power if it continues to make threats that it cannot back up. The inability to move China off reefs or cays that are a few feet above the waterline comes at a time when the U.S. has also been unable to move Russia out of the Crimean Peninsula and away from the failed state of Ukraine. The U.S. also suffers from a lack of credibility in dealing with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Altogether, these failures make the U.S. seem feckless and make the balance of the century look unpredictably perilous.