China’s assertive territorial claims in the East and South China Seas have flared intermittently over the years into diplomatic and even physical confrontations. Until recently, however, these incidents—seizures of islands, reefs or rock outcroppings, or naval vessels ramming one another—have subsided after a flurry of tactical responses.
That pattern is changing permanently. Whoever becomes president in January will require a policy of sustained American involvement and leadership, not merely the watchful attitude we have long maintained. The U.S. is already perilously close to the point strategically where China will simply run the table with its claims. Potential hostilities are no longer hypothetical.
Last week in Beijing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated the usual U.S. bromides, namely: resolving the region’s maritime disputes peacefully through negotiation consistent with international-law principles regarding freedom of navigation.
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi replied bluntly that China was sovereign over the territories, and government media mouthpiece Xinhua warned the U.S. that “strategic miscalculations about a rising power could well lead to confrontations and even bloody conflicts, like the war between ancient Athens and Sparta. To avoid such a catastrophic scenario, Washington has to change its obsolete and doubt-ridden thinking pattern and cooperate with Beijing to settle their differences.”
China sees these waters through a prism of increasing confidence based on geographical proximity; the weakness of, and competition among, the other territorial claimants; decreasing U.S. Navy capabilities due to draconian budget reductions; President Obama’s diffidence in protecting U.S. interests abroad; and, for most Americans, the uninspiring abstractness of “freedom of the seas.”
In Washington today, these disputes appear distant, almost trivial, akin to Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 description of Czechoslovakia as “a faraway country of which we know little.” Such lassitude must give way to a strategic approach based on three key elements.
First, the U.S. must decide unequivocally that Beijing’s expansionism in the East and South China Seas is contrary to American national interests. There are high, tangible stakes for us and our Asian and Pacific friends, ranging broadly from Japan and South Korea to Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) including Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. The stakes include undersea mineral resources and sea lanes of communication and trade critical to U.S. and global prosperity.
Sweet-sounding platitudes about international law will not prevent Beijing’s looming hegemony in these waters. While not every Chinese claim is illegitimate, we must prevent the country’s sheer mass and presence from prevailing. The U.N.-sponsored Law of the Sea Treaty—which may be passed by the lame-duck Congress this fall after going unratified for three decades—will be inconsequential, as the regional parties, particularly China, fully understand. This is about power and resolve.
Second, we must rapidly rebuild America’s Navy, without which any shift in strategic thinking is hollow. This is a maritime problem at the operational level, demanding adequate resources. Today we have about 285 warships at sea, a scarcity of vessels not seen since World War I.
China is building its own blue-water navy for the first time in centuries, actively pursuing anti-access, area-denial tactics and weapons systems intended to push the U.S. back from the Western Pacific. Unless we increase the Navy’s capabilities, or essentially abandon other ocean spaces, the negative direction and ultimate outcome in the waters off China are clear.
America’s current approach—watching while initially minor incidents risk escalating—puts us at a distinct disadvantage. Passivity will allow Beijing to prevail repeatedly, incident after incident, until U.S. weakness becomes so palpable that there is no doubt of China’s across-the-board success.
Third, we must work diplomatically, largely behind the scenes, to resolve differences among the other claimants. In the East China Sea, Japan is the major competitor, while Beijing butts heads with Vietnam, the Philippines and other Asean members in the South China Sea. These regions are distinct geographically and politically, but for China both are part of the same strategic picture. So it must be for America.
China’s goal is to split the seams, pitting Vietnam against the Philippines; isolating Japan; neutralizing Taiwan, and otherwise sowing discord among its competitors. The more intra-Asean disputes we can eliminate, the greater the potential for a common position. This pragmatic diplomatic strategy of resolving non-Chinese competing claims hardly guarantees positive results, but it beats repeating academic mantras about international law. (Taiwan could also help politically by renouncing China’s outlandish claims to disputed territories.)
The Obama administration argues that its “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia, combined with Secretary Clinton’s frequent-flier miles, will resolve these problems. Not so. America is a global power, with continuing interests everywhere. We don’t pivot like a weather vane from one region to another, especially since it is folly to believe the Middle East is so tranquil that we can pay it less attention.
America’s China policy should be comprehensive, agile and persistent, but one fixed element must be that the international waters around China will not become Lake Beijing.