What Should We Do about China?

China has recently been in the headlines with attempts to exert its military and economic influence over the southeast area.  In response, the U.S. challenged China's claims to sovereignty over regional waters, letting all nations in the area understand that the U.S. will not be intimidated.  American Thinker asked experts if China should be viewed as a competitor, adversary, or enemy.

China claims sovereignty over most of the South and East China Seas and warned last month that it would "never allow any country to violate China's territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation and over flight."  This overlaps the areas claimed by other countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia.  Some believe that if China succeeds, nations will protect their claims through the "naval cannon," not the rule of law.  The U.S. has responded by initiating "Freedom of Navigation Patrols," when the USS Lassen, a modern-day destroyer, sailed within twelve nautical miles of several of China's new fortifications.

The commander of the Pacific has been pushing for the U.S. to challenge the Chinese claims for quite awhile.  Former CIA Director Michael Hayden states to American Thinker, "We want to establish the precedent of innocent passage, letting China know we will not treat the East and South China Seas like they want them to be treated.  Because we are a maritime nation, it is important to make sure the open seas are not closed off.  The way I explain it: you build a fence three feet inside your property line.  Because of that, your neighbor stakes claim to the other piece of the land that is really yours."

Bonnie Glaser, an expert on China and Asia-Pacific at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., believes that it is important for the U.S. to work with other nations in the area to show the Chinese that it is not in their interest to put such a high premium on sovereignty.  She tells American Thinker the Chinese admiral sent a message after America's show of force.  "It was a four-character phrase that was more of a warning than a threat.  Basically, it said, 'If you are cleaning your gun, it can go off accidentally,' meaning that we should not back ourselves into a conflict we both do not want."

Mike Maden, who has a Ph.D. in international relations, warned in his latest book, Drone Command, how the Chinese are building chains of bases on remote reefs and shoals in the Spratly Islands.  He compares what China is asserting to "their version of the Monroe Doctrine.  They are doing what we did, so we should not be surprised, overwhelmed, or offended that China wants to exert itself in territorial waters."

Hayden emphasizes that we do not have to "draw dark conclusions about the Chinese intentions.  But we do have to respond to their military buildup.  It changes the relative balance of power.  They have a military strategy based upon anti-access/area denial systems and capabilities.  These include not only weapons, such as anti-ship missiles, but also building a blue water navy."

Maden explains that China's development of missiles and a submarine fleet is done to neutralize the U.S. power.  "They have doubled the amount of money spent on defense, have become missile-centric, and have twice as many submarines than the U.S.  To put it in perspective, they have spent three times as much on defense as Russia."

The facts support Maden's claims, since several Southeast Asia defense ministers have warned of the danger of "undersea clutter" from the buildup of submarine fleets.  The Chinese are also developing the YJ-18 missile, which has a wide deployment and would be helpful to them in implementing the naval strategy of keeping opposing forces away from China's coast and from the waters inside the first island chain.  That is in addition to the WU-14 "carrier-killer" and the DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile, both able to target aircraft carriers.

Hayden says he would not rule out the possibility of submarines playing a major role.  He wants the U.S. to build attack submarines to protect the surface-to-air missiles that carry an offensive punch.  He maintains that it is needed for the U.S. to preserve its superiority.  Although costly, the U.S. must deploy its military capability to maintain access and operational maneuverability within the East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea.

Glaser feels that there must be other avenues to handle China.  She believes that a good move was for the Philippines to file a suit with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) to challenge China's claims over the islands in dispute.  She notes, "There is a lot of political tension and hostility that make cooperation very, very difficult.  The only way to resolve this is going to be through the use of international arbitration.  It became clear the Philippines were not going to be able to defend their rights by themselves.  The U.S. agrees with their position, that under international law, building up artificial islands on reefs does not entitle a country to claim a territorial limit needed to maintain freedom of navigation.  Let's remember that 50% of the world's trade goes through the South China Sea."

All interviewed agree that the U.S. should play the necessary role as security provider for those nations in the region threatened by China.  Hayden points out that in response to the growth of Chinese power, America has drawn closer to other nations in the region.  "Japan is reinterpreting its constitution, investing a bit more in the military.  Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Japan have nowhere else to turn, so they are more receptive to having a military presence by the U.S.  Singapore invites our combat ships to their ports, the Philippines wants to do military exercises with the U.S., and the Japanese are not complaining as much about our Marines stationed in Okinawa."

Hayden summarizes America's relationship with China as being "competitive, occasionally confrontational, but never reaching a level of direct conflict.  I do not believe we are in a new Cold War or that China is relentlessly expansionistic.  But we need to continually challenge them to make sure there is a military balance maintained in the region."

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews and author interviews and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.