China’s incremental approach toward its goal of complete control over the South China Sea has so far avoided any serious repercussions. That should change unless the United States and its allies are willing to accept Chinese domination over the strategically and economically important waterway.
To be sure, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines against China’s Nine Dash Line claim in 2016. And, yes, the United States has made intermittent Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) sailing through the contested area, purposefully traversing within 12 nautical miles of Beijing’s artificially-created islets.
However, China is still there and has recently installed Anti-Ship Missiles (ASMs) and Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) that serve an offensive role as much as their claimed defensive purpose.
Although a recent report notes that the SAMs have been removed or merely hidden, it also cites experts who believe that the change may be only temporary. Aside from diplomatic wagging of tongues and some American warships transiting the area, nothing has been done to reverse the militarized tide – certainly nothing effective.
The present situation came about because, although Beijing’s claim to roughly 90% of the South China Sea has been declared null and void by competent international authorities, there is no enforcement arm to ensure that China relinquishes its sweeping and legally fatuous claim.
Little by little, with each action in and of itself insufficient to provoke an armed clash, Beijing has over the years seized a number of islets, reefs, and shoals in the contested maritime area.
China has since built up those features with dredging so that permanent structures and more recently runways could be constructed. Now, there are fighters and nuclear-capable bombers landing on these islands where Beijing has also installed ASMs and SAMs.
China has step-by-step clearly established itself as the preeminent military force in the South China Sea, despite President Xi Jinping’s vow to former US President Barack Obama that China would not militarize the area.
The conventional thinking to date has been that seizing these specks of artificial land in a vast sea is not cause enough for conflict. That sort of thinking, however, tacitly accepts that, absent any serious effort to remove it, Beijing is there to stay in direct violation of an international court ruling, handed down in July 2016.
With forward military outposts now in place, China is able to intimidate other claimant nations into ceding natural resources in their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).
This week, for example, Philippine media captured on video a Chinese Coast Guard ship taking part of a Filipino fisherman’s catch near the contested Scarborough Shoal. The rocky outcrip, which China forcibly seized after a months-long naval standoff in 2012, lies within Manila’s legally defined EEZ.
Gas exploration efforts by Vietnam and the Philippines have either been stopped outright or discouraged unless they partner with China, thus giving Beijing access to resources to which it has no valid claim under international law.
Diplomacy – even international opprobrium – has not worked to stall China’s ambitions. To date, FONOPs by the United States, soon to include those by Great Britain and France, have not had any appreciable effect other than for Beijing to increase its armaments on its claimed islets.
A lack of effective reaction in the name of avoiding conflict has merely facilitated China’s doing whatever it wants in the area.
Ramped up FONOPs will likely spark an even greater response from China. While the US and its allies may score diplomatic and political points through more such sailings, they also increase the odds for some sort of military confrontation with Beijing. Every additional allied sortie in the waters China claims – despite the verdict of the tribunal at The Hague – is another opportunity for conflict.
The West ought not pick a fight with Beijing, but it ought not back down from any confrontation with China either.
For example, should a Chinese fighter aircraft act in an aggressive manner, as one did in 2001 against an American reconnaissance aircraft operating over international waters, or if one should target an allied aircraft with its fire-control radar – an act universally considered as hostile – the immediate response ought to be to neutralize the threat by shooting it down.
The same armed response is required regarding the fire-control radars of Beijing’s ASMs or SAMs. If a Chinese weapons system activates its fire-control radar against any allied craft operating in international waters or flying in international airspace, the only proper military response is to destroy it.
Some would claim that it would be reckless to suggest that force be used to resolve such matters. However, now is not the time for appeasement, and Beijing has clearly established itself as an aggressor in the waterway. Moreover, the only thing that China likely understands and respects is a superior force.
China has shown it has no regard for the rules-based order that the modern world has developed, for to Beijing’s mind it does not suit its purpose. Like a child that has yet to learn basic social graces, Beijing will continue its military moves to control the South China Sea until the US and its allies stop it.