From the conclusion of the Second World War on, the United States Navy has enjoyed unchallenged freedom to operate throughout the Pacific, including off the shores of China, a reality that Beijing has had little choice but to accept.
Those days may be over sooner than many think. In fact, according to one well-regarded Australian security analyst, China may begin to exert control over the wide swath of territory it claims in the South China Sea within a year.
The prediction, made this week in Washington by the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Peter Jennings, was quite specific. It went so far as to say the Chinese military will likely close off air and sea space to hold exercises in international waters. Though recognized as international waters, China has claimed (nearly) the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territory.
US and Australian government officials and other security analysts who spoke with The Sydney Morning Herald, which reported the comments on Friday, all said the scenario was plausible. Some thought it likely.
“Even though this would be presented as a temporary measure – a few days, perhaps a week – it would be the end of freedom of navigation and overflight if it went unchallenged,” the article asserted.
“It’s right to expect some kind of testing by China to see how far they can go, to find the limits. You have to be unwaveringly consistent and firm,” Michele Flournoy, a former top Pentagon policy adviser was quoted as saying.
“China’s pattern of behavior is like they’re boiling a frog – keep the temperature high enough to change the frog from live to one you can eat, but not with any extreme changes so that the frog jumps out of the pot,” she said.
Flournoy was a participant at the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue, where Jennings made his comments.
Former Trump political strategist Steve Bannon, also speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald, made his own prediction – about how Trump would respond.
“He understands that the central geopolitical issue of the century is China versus the West,” Bannon said. “He will not let the South China Sea go uncontested. He’s been consistent on China for 30 years. He understands China is the main event. He’s not going to back off.”
While there was a prolonged lull in related tensions between Washington and Beijing following Trump’s election, the temperature has risen in recent months as Chinese moves to deploy weapons on contested islands have been met with US freedom of navigation operations.
Analysts saw initial reticence on the part of the Trump administration as a sign that China’s militarization of the South China Sea had taken a back seat to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Following the buildup of momentum for a diplomatic resolution to North Korea, the gloves came off for the US president on the issue of trade, and the Pentagon has been more vocal in criticizing Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea.