The Corner

National Security & Defense

Diplomacy Alone Won’t Stop the Chinese from Asserting Sovereignty over the South China Sea

Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited Beijing for the purpose, among other things, of persuading the Chinese to submit their claims in the South China Sea to negotiation with the other ASEAN states. To no one’s surprise, the mission was a failure; the Chinese flatly refused to budge from their position, and had the additional satisfaction of humbling the American Secretary of State in the process. 

I have written before about the massive military buildup in which China is engaged, and the purpose behind it. China wants hegemonic status in their near seas, and the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party believe they can get what they want through coercive tactics.  Why should they negotiate?

China has been reclaiming seven reefs and atolls in and around the Spratly Islands. In effect, it is building islands in the ocean – creating a “Great Wall of sand”, according to Admiral Harry Harris, commander of America’s Pacific fleet – to assert its territorial claims in the region, which include virtually the entire South China Sea.  About 5 trillion dollars worth of trade ships through that sea every year.

The reclaimed reefs have strategic as well as political value, as potential bases for China’s growing Navy and Air Force. Recently the Chinese admitted that they may use the islands for military purposes, and they have been photographed building what appears to be an air strip on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.  

Consistent with their strategy, China is aggressively asserting the rights of a sovereign. They are warning other nations not to sail or fly, except with their permission, within twelve nautical miles of the reclaimed islands. They have no right under international law to extend their sovereignty in this way, but the Chinese leaders do not, at a fundamental level, believe in an international order where nations relate to each other according to neutral norms. As one Japanese scholar told me, the Chinese view the world vertically rather than horizontally; they believe that the big dogs should get most of the benefits, and they are rapidly becoming the biggest dogs in their part of the world. 

China already has a large and growing inventory of missiles, surface warships, submarines, and modern aircraft. In addition, according to the Pentagon, China will by 2023 acquire upwards of 40,000 stealthy Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs).  

UAVs have heretofore been used primarily for reconnaissance, and no doubt much of the new Chinese inventory will be used for that purpose; the Peoples Liberation Army needs to see our ships before they can shoot at them. But three versions of the new UAVs will also have precision-strike capability. Since the UAVs will be stealthy, they will be hard to locate and shoot down, and even if they weren’t, it would be extremely difficult for our forces to neutralize an attack en masse.

Of course the United States still has tremendous firepower in its aircraft carrier task forces. But that power is not of much use when the carriers are weeks away from the scene of conflict, and when, before the carriers could bring their power to bear, they would be faced with scores of incoming missiles which have a longer range than our naval aircraft. The missiles could be launched from the sea, land and air, and some of them would move at supersonic speeds. 

So the United States is presented with a Hobson’s choice. The Pentagon is considering deliberately sailing American naval vessels within 12 miles of the reclaimed islands, and for good reason; not to do so would be to concede Chinese dominance and recognize de facto China’s claims. 

But sailing close to the islands is not a great choice either. It increases tension, and risks escalation under circumstances where China has more flexible options than we do, in a region where everyone outside of Washington — everyone living in the real world — knows America is outgunned. And even if American ships do on occasion violate the twelve-mile limit without incident, the Chinese will still have profited from their assertiveness; they will still have their islands, their claims, and the option of ratcheting up the pressure any time they see fit.

For the United States, these kinds of choices will become increasingly common, and increasingly dangerous, in the years to come. The balance of power in the South China Sea is shifting towards the Chinese. They have the advantage of numbers, proximity, and capabilities designed to exploit our weaknesses. Meanwhile, our government has been dismantling the deterrent power on which the stability of the region depends.  

As long as that continues, the advantage, and the initiative, will rest with the Chinese. Diplomacy will not stop them from pursuing their objectives, unless and until it is coupled with superior force and clearly defined consequences.  

China has become a great power, and is acting like one. The leaders of China understand what our government would prefer not to recognize: that the key obstacle to their ambitions is the United States. What is at stake are vital American interests: peace, freedom of navigation, our treaty obligations, and preservation of the norm-based international order which America midwifed, and under which we have prospered. We had better decide, and decide soon, whether those interests are worth protecting.    

Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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