The South China Sea (SCS) is fast becoming one of the key geopolitical battlegrounds of our time. China’s systematic, rapid and large-scale island-building campaign has suddenly altered the strategic equation in “Asia’s Mediterranean.” It has also presented Washington with a long-term strategic dilemma in the Western Pacific.
There are literally dozens of disputed islands, atolls, submerged banks, reefs, rocks and shoals in the SCS. Incompatible territorial claims involving China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines have been the subject of legal wrangling and rhetorical bickering for years. In recent months China has suddenly upped the ante with its Spratly Island building expansion on the Johnson, Cuarteron, and Gaven reefs. Over Fiery Cross Reef and, more recently, Mischief Reef, fleets of dozens of dredgers have been continually sucking sand off the bottom of the sea and blowing it in huge plumes to create new land above the surface, while simultaneously digging deep harbors. What used to be reefs barely visible above the waves are now massive building projects which already house permanent air and naval facilities. Since early last year China has expanded these islands by 2,000 acres – and the work of its engineering teams appears to be far from over. Future likely flashpoints are the Scarborough Shoals (claimed by Philippines and China), and the Paracel Islands, already occupied by China but still claimed by Vietnam.
For China, asserting control over the disputed zone is seen as a near-existential issue. The UN Environmental Program (UNEP) estimates that the South China Sea currently accounts for as much as one tenth of global fish catches. China will have no more than 20 percent of the world’s population by 2030, but she will account for 38 percent of global fish consumption by that time. Energy-hungry China is also hoping to exploit massive likely deposits of oil and gas below the SCS surface, if and when its fait accompli is accepted as irreversible.
The series of man-made islands and the massive Chinese military build-up on them have alarmed Washington, with the U.S. Navy carrying out P8-A Poseidon surveillance flights over the new islands. Ten days ago former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told CNN's Erin Burnett Wednesday night that the confrontation indicates there is “absolutely” a risk of the U.S. and China going to war sometime in the future. “China is a rising power. We’re a status quo power. We're the big dog on the block . . . They want more influence,” Morell said. “Are we going to move a little bit? Are they going to push? How is that dance going to work out? This is a significant issue for the next President of the United States.”
It is indeed. The challenge that the rise of China presents to the United States global strategy as currently concieved is more pressing than any other global issue except for the ever-present threat of jihad. Beijing is rapidly becoming a regional power of the first order, the potential Asian hegemon that will need to be contained and confronted, or in some way appeased. Its ruling party still calls itself “communist,” but the ethos of the nomenklatura is eminently traditional: nationalist, xenophobic, and authoritarian. The sacro egoismo has been China’s guiding light in foreign affairs for over two millennia.
With the demise of Maoism, Han nationalism is the only ideological cement that binds the nation under CPC rule, granting it legitimacy. Nurtured by the collective memory of humiliations, invasions and massacres that started with the First Opium War in 1839, it is a potent force. Taiwan epitomizes the legacy of past shame. She was taken by force by Japan and ruled as a colony for 50 years (1895-1945). To condone her separation, under whatever name, would be tantamount to accepting the status of a second-class power. Furthermore, a soft line on Taiwan would have serious implications for the future status of Tibet and – even more significantly – for the restive Muslim-populated Sinkiang-Uigur province in the far west of the country.
The choice facing the United States is fairly clear. China is an ancient power, studiedly contemptuous of outsiders, steeped in Realpolitik. If she is to be treated as a rival and potential enemy, it is necessary to halt further American investment in the Chinese economy, to reverse massive outsourcing of the past quarter-century, and to erect effective trade barriers against the continuing deluge of Chinese-made consumer products in American stores. It is also necessary to improve defense capabilities of China’s regional foes – from Japan and South Korea in the north to the Philippines and (yes) Vietnam in the south – who are not necessarily on friendly terms with each other. The geopolitical equation of containing and confronting China also demands an alliance, informal or otherwise, between the United States and India, which is, in the long term, China’s sole natural rival in Asia.
If the list is unappetizing or even impossible to fulfill (India), then the alternative is to accept the rise of China as a first-order power, and to do so with the best possible grace. Exactly ten years ago I wrote in these pages that “a reigning power is naturally disinclined to look on benignly as another rises, but the middle road would be based on the notion that a conflict between America and China is not inevitable. The relationship will need to be managed skillfully – with more reciprocity in the field of trade and exchange rates – but its essential ingredient will be to accept that Taiwan is part of China and that she will eventually be reintegrated . . . ”
The diagnosis still stands, and China is in no hurry. She is the fastest growing among the world’s major economies; per capita basis, her growth over the past two decades was the highest in the world. That Western-style political liberties have not kept pace with China’s increasing economic freedom is true but irrelevant. A decade from now she will be a great power of the first order. In foreign affairs, her leaders will continue to trust China’s wealth and power as a means of achieving diplomatic objectives and treating a strong defense as an outgrowth of a strong economy.
The current tension in the SCS notwithstanding, countries of the region will be hard pressed to negotiate the terms and conditions of an acceptable relationship with Beijing that would fall short of China’s outright hegemony. At the same time, it is self-defeating for the U.S. to assume that any change of the status quo in Asia is detrimental to American interests. As China continues to transform herself into a global economic power, her interests, security concerns, and aspirations will be asserted with ever-greater self-confidence. The task of U.S. policy in East and Southeast Asia should be to consider whether, and to what extent, those aspirations are compatible with American interests and security. Ultimately the American interest demands a pragmatic acceptance of the emerging redistribution of power in Asia, and – on the global scale – policies that will seek to manage, rather than resist, the emerging multipolar structure.