The dangerous game of chicken now being played out in the South China Sea, with American warships sailing provocatively close to a clutch of new-made Chinese islands, is only the beginning of what looks to be a lengthy and epic tussle.
That’s because a detailed plan, hatched in Beijing decades ago, is currently being unrolled, with the aim of demonstrating that the Pacific Ocean is no longer an immense American-dominated lake, but an ocean belonging to the world, with no navy or nation wielding a monopoly of power across its waters. How the United States deals with China’s latest moves will determine to no small degree the future serenity of the planet.
The Chinese navy is bent on asserting what Beijing sees as its right to deploy its forces more or less at will throughout the Pacific. To behave, in other words, much as the United States has behaved since the end of World War II.
The closings of United States bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field in the Philippines in the early ’90s created the initial military vacuum in the South China Sea, one that the Chinese were only too happy to fill. And they did so by the stealthy seizure of scores of barely visible islets and atolls there.
The island annexations were done with admirable cunning. Each purloining was performed singly — a few bulldozers shipped in here, the odd radar dome erected there, a cement slipway here, a lighthouse there — such that what was going on seemed only a minimal threat or annoyance.
Not one of the Chinese seizures prompted a military response from the United States. Only belatedly did it begin to dawn on the Pentagon that the entire body of water had become a quilt of Chinese-claimed real estate. American primacy in the western Pacific was at stake. The free passage of shipping, long guaranteed by the calming presence of American steel, was under potential threat.
Hence a dangerously risky response: the voyage of the Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, followed by Beijing’s summons of the American ambassador and the startling pronouncement that China does not fear a shooting war over the issue. All diplomatic bombast, perhaps — but also a consequence of Washington’s having done so little to nip a gathering problem in the bud.
Part of the problem is that the United States runs its foreign policy on a four-year cycle, while China is adroitly playing, as always, the long game. And the South China Sea affair is only the beginning of what will be a very long game indeed. By 2049 — the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic — China intends to have achieved a prodigious series of Pacific ambitions.
Central to the new strategy is the construction of three imagined bastions, chains of disconnected Pacific islands that would, in Beijing’s view, comprehensively protect its homeland and project its influence.
The closest of these to China’s coastline, the so-called First Island Chain, is a ragged line running from Japan south to Java; the Second meanders from Kamchatka down to Papua New Guinea; the Third from the Aleutians to Hawaii to New Zealand. China’s plan is for its maritime presence to grow and gather itself behind these protective chains until, by 2049, its ships will have become a familiar reality in the deep ocean as far east as Honolulu.
The coastal waters east of the First Island Chain are already alive with Chinese warships, including its one ex-Russian carrier, fully modernized, the Liaoning. More such behemoths are on order in the Manchurian shipyards. Further tentative moves have already begun: Five Chinese destroyers were spotted off the Alaskan coast recently, just as President Obama was visiting the state.
By 2020, we can expect to see Chinese naval battle groups in the waters north of Australia and in the Coral Sea. By 2040, its ships will be off Midway Island and Tonga. By 2049, most symbolically, they will be exercising near Hawaii, their vessels visible from United States Pacific fleet headquarters in Pearl Harbor.
But will this truly be a threat? The Chinese insist it is not — they merely wish to make their presence known, to enjoy naval equivalence in an ocean that has ample room for all. The restoration of wounded pride is more important to Beijing than any seizure of territory.
However, the genial (and half-Japanese) new American Pacific commander, Adm. Harry Harris, has hoisted battle pennants. He met with senior Chinese military officers in Beijing this week, and said that Washington fully intends to continue “freedom of navigation operations,” and that warships like the Lassen will sail in the South China Sea with impunity, as anywhere else.
To what end, though — other than to needle the Chinese — remains unclear. Beijing sees such patrols as bellicose and provocative. The wiser policy would surely be for the United States simply to make clear that what is of greatest importance — the freedom of innocent passage through these waters, and the guarantee of trade routes — remains inviolate. The Chinese have never suggested otherwise.
Hawks in Washington think that only by acquiring and deploying more hardware, bigger guns and louder talk will Washington bring the Chinese back to their senses. So the fear now is that an accidental confrontation — a shot across the bow, a collision, a hotheaded commander — could spiral out of control.
Whatever happens in the days ahead, one thing is certain. The history of this huge region has now begun to turn on its hinge. China is in the unstoppable ascendant. It is time for prudence on what could swiftly become a very nonpacific Pacific Ocean.
Simon Winchester is the author, most recently, of Pacific.