As China builds toward its ambition of becoming the world’s military hegemon, it is important to pause and consider how its virulent reaction to the July 12 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s denial of its “historic” claims to the South China Sea previews how “Pax Sinica” will threaten democracies.
To thwart China’s military and anti-democratic ambitions, it is now critical that the United States lead its Asian allies in devising a South China Sea strategy that militarily secures its regions vital to the U.S. and its allies.
For decades Communist China has insisted that its claims to most of the South China Sea are based on its “historic” “nine-dash line” that it inherited from the previous Nationalist regime. But only since about 2011 has it commenced an increasingly militarized campaign to enforce its claims.
China’s actions include building seven new bases in the Spratly Islands, in the largest amphibious power projection operation since Gen. Douglas McArthur’s 1950 landing at Inchon. China has deployed new weapons to its bases, has signaled its intention to build on Scarborough Shoal, build new information networks to assist weapon targeting, and now threatens to impose an Air Defense Identification Zone and to undertake greater military “patrol” enforcement activities.
Far from seeking historic rights, global strategic objectives drive China’s desire to control the South China Sea. These include the creation of a “lake” to protect its nuclear missile-carrying submarines, assuring global maritime access for its future aircraft carrier and amphibious projection fleets, placing greater strategic pressure on Taiwan, and assuring access to deep space and the moon from its new space base on Hainan Island. Beijing will also link its South China Sea bases to future bases in the Indian Ocean to protect the southern flank of its economic-political projection to Central Asia and Europe, in keeping with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy.
Achievement of these ambitions, perhaps by the 2040s, requires increasing political, economic and military submission to Beijing. It can buy off weaker states in Central Asia, Africa and Latin America with massive investment, but global military projection and space control are required to displace American-led military networks in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
China does not explain its aggression in the South China Sea in these terms. Instead, since the early 1990s Beijing has been happy to discuss but never agree to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations desire that it join a code of conduct, intended to avoid potential military crises. Starting in 2010, when the Obama administration elevated its activism to join ASEAN and then engage China bilaterally about its aggression, Beijing has responded with increasing truculence, mobilizing its diplomatic and propaganda organs to portray Washington as the aggressor.
In 2013, out of frustration, the Philippines initiated its long-shot case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration to contest the basis for China’s claims under the Law of the Sea Treaty. The court rejected outright Beijing’s “nine-dash line” and declared illegal its new island base on Mischief Reef, within the Philippines 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
Stating clearly Beijing’s rejection of this ruling to visiting U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, on July 18, Chinese Navy Commander Adm. Wu Shengli declared, “We will never stop our construction on the Nansha [Spratly] Islands halfway .” We will never sacrifice our sovereignty and interests in the South China Sea.” Adm. Richardson’s response to this challenge is unknown.
China’s reaction to this ruling is consistent with its previous rejection of legal or political constraints to its national interests that threaten others, like its blatant proliferation of missile and nuclear technologies. Allowing Beijing to flout the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in the South China Sea will only embolden it to continue to reject international “rules,” which most countries accept to sustain order. And Beijing will then impose control over sea lanes handling about 25 percent of shipping traffic to the United States.
As during the Cold War, the United States and other democracies have little choice but to unite and defend what is vital. Washington and Manila should lead a legal and political campaign to convince Beijing to turn over Mischief Reef to the Philippines and cede its other Spratly Group bases to United Nations control. It is also necessary to arm the Philippines sufficiently to defend Palawan, retaliate against Chinese attacks from their Spratly Group bases and deter China from building an additional base on Scarborough Shoal.
In promoting such a strategy, the United States and its allies must be prepared to be tested by China. Accordingly, we must have sufficient forces deployed along with allies that it becomes clear to China that we are prepared to respond to any offensive actions by China. That is a core principle of deterrence.
James A. Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.