China's Creeping Expansion in the South China Sea
Perhaps blinkered by its focus on the immediate threats from the Middle East and North Korea, America is passively allowing a very dangerous course of events to unfold elsewhere, in another region vital to our national interests. Unless we awaken, and take action, we may someday find ourselves facing an even more formidable set of problems than our current struggle for survival in the War on Terror.
In April I traveled to Beijing to deliver a paper on "'Command of the Sea' and the Proliferation Security Initiative" at an annual symposium on maritime security held by the Ford Foundation and the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations. I left China troubled about the future of the Asia—Pacific region. Why? For what might seem like an odd reason: Many influential naval strategists in China today are followers of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the influential maritime thinker of the Theodore Roosevelt era.
That could portend friction in the Asia—Pacific region or, in the extreme case, military conflict.
It's happened before, when Kaiser Wilhelm II, Admiral Tirpitz, and other German luminaries launched their country into a disastrous naval competition with Great Britain, the preeminent maritime power of the day. Not only did Mahan —— the second president of the U.S. Naval War College and one of the principal architects of the U.S. naval buildup in the 1890s —— focus the attention of students of sea power on critical points on the map, but he also told them to prepare for titanic naval battles, which for him were the sine qua non of naval warfare.
Speaker after speaker at the Beijing symposium quoted Mahan's dictum that "command of the sea" was defined as "that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy's flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive; and which, by controlling the great common, closes the highways by which commerce moves to and fro from the enemy's shores."
This enthusiasm for Mahan and "overbearing power on the sea" converges with another development that barely registers on the American agenda: incremental Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Chinese claims to several islands in the region could threaten the flow of maritime commerce through the busy Strait of Malacca. Despite its oft—proclaimed commitment to freedom of navigation and its extensive maritime interests in the region, the United States has publicly soft—pedaled the issue. If public statements accurately represent strategic thinking, America needs to remedy this shortfall in its Asia—Pacific strategy.
In recent decades China has acted at opportune moments to acquire strategic outposts allowing it to assert control over the waterways of the region. In 1974 Chinese forces wrested the Paracel Islands from a teetering South Vietnam. In 1988, taking advantage of united Vietnam's pariah status, the Chinese navy pummeled a Vietnamese flotilla and occupied several of the strategically placed Spratly Islands. In 1995, following the U.S. withdrawal from the Philippine Islands, Beijing capitalized on American inattention and Filipino weakness to seize control of Mischief Reef, an islet located within the 200—mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
These moves came when great—power —— especially American —— opposition was unlikely. They also signaled China's willingness to use naval force to back up its maritime claims.
In 1998 China moved to consolidate its control over Mischief Reef by constructing permanent military facilities there and elsewhere in the Spratlys. This chain of events represents an attempt by China to extend its outer defense perimeter, establish bases flanking vital sea lines of communication, and ultimately assert a measure of control over the approaches to the Strait of Malacca, which empties into the South China Sea.
A corollary is Beijing's long—term goal of excluding the United States from the region and consolidating its status as the foremost power in Asia, consonant with the ancient "Middle Kingdom" concept. Accordingly, China has used its new insular possessions to bolster its long—standing claims to most of the South China Sea —— claims that in 1992 were codified in PRC domestic law. If left unopposed, China's creeping expansion would place it squarely athwart the crucially important sea lanes. Naval and air bases on Chinese—occupied islands could disrupt maritime traffic that carries one—sixth of the world's trade and over 70 percent of Japan's oil. Allowing China to control Japan's lifeline would set a dangerous precedent.
Evidently for the sake of Chinese cooperation vis—