As the Australian Broadcast Corporation recently reported, China has found a way to fortify the South China Sea. The Chinese military have descended on a number of barren atolls and have turned them into artificial islands. The Chinese have then turned these new islands into military bases, with airstrips, port facilities, radar installations, and anti-aircraft gun batteries.
China is undertaking these measures for two reasons. First, the South China Sea lies over valuable deposits of oil and natural gas. The area is also considered a rich fishing ground. Second, control of the region would serve to deny the United States Navy access to an important part of the Western Pacific.
The South China Sea is the subject of competing claims by a number of other countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and a number of others. China has maintained a claim of sovereignty over the region, which means that other countries are barred from exploiting its resources or even deploying naval or air units inside it without Beijing’s permission. The claim, not recognized by any other country, could spark a future war between China and the United States and her allies.
The first scenario involves an incident between an American naval or air unit and the Chinese military deployed in the South China Sea. China regularly intercepts and harasses American aircraft and ships that enter the area where it claims sovereignty. One does not have to have much of an imagination to envision some trigger-happy person on one side or another opening fire, with things spiraling out of control, with the United States moving to eject the Chinese from their artificial island bases and China resisting violently.
The other scenario involves one of the neighboring countries, Vietnam or the Philippines most likely, moving into the South China Sea and setting up drilling operations. The Chinese decide to exercise what they believe are their sovereign rights and move to eject the foreign oil and gas workers militarily. Vietnam or the Philippines resists, leading to war.
If the Philippines gets into an armed conflict with China, the United States would be obligated to come to its aid by treaty. The United States, because relations with Vietnam are warming, might support that country in the event of war with China, as well. Ironic, when one considers the history of conflict between the two countries.
Clearly it is in the interest of all parties concerned to avoid war if at all possible. China is moving into the South China Sea on the scale it is because it perceives weakness on the part of the United States. It would behoove the administration to disabuse Beijing of the notion that America is disposed to roll over in the face of Chinese imperialism. Patrols over and in the South China Sea should be stepped up, possibly with joint exercises including American and local units, to demonstrate that China’s claim of sovereignty is not recognized. A military build up to back up such an effort and to convince China that war is not an option is crucial part of this strategy,
At the same time the United States needs to use diplomatic and economic pressure to force China to submit to a treaty that would allow it and neighboring countries to share the South China Sea and its resources. The treaty should include a code of conduct involving free passage of civilian and military traffic through the South China Sea. Such a treaty would defuse the potential of armed conflict among the parties concerned.