A US Coast Guard ship plies the South China Sea in a file photo. Photo: Wikimedia

Picture this: The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its battle group are conducting a “freedom of navigation” exercise in the South China Sea. The Reagan approaches one of the many artificial islands that China has created and weaponized in its attempt to cement its claim to sovereignty over the contested waters. The Chinese troops on the island, instead of radioing the American naval commander of the perceived trespass and allowing the sail-by, which has been the standard response on previous exercises, launch a volley of hypersonic missiles (ballistic anti-ship missiles), which strike and sink the Reagan and several of its escort ships.

Or maybe the Chinese don’t wait for the Reagan to sail: Upon learning of the freedom-of-navigation exercise, they strike and sink the carrier and its escort ships while in port at Yokosuka, Japan.

While these hypotheticals are probably not the most likely to occur, in December 2018 Chinese Admiral Luo Yuan, deputy chief of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, did propose – in a public setting – using hypersonic missiles to sink two US aircraft carriers as China’s strategy for solving tensions over the South China Sea.

And, notwithstanding the debate among US naval officers and specialists in weaponry and naval architecture and war-game designers, the missiles do appear to work, the Chinese having successfully test-fired them somewhere in the South China Sea this month.

The admiral’s reasoning for this sneak attack à la Pearl Harbor may not be completely unsound either. As for his statement in support of the plan – that the US is too weak to fight – the Japanese held the same belief in 1941. Enough said. (It’s also an almost sure bet that the US wouldn’t wait until the end of the war this act would precipitate to use nuclear weapons.) But his analysis that the US has no strategy to thwart China’s unlawful presence and activities in the South China Sea and its designs to gain military concessions from Southeast Asian nations is largely correct.

The Chinese have been testing the US for a reaction to their military ambitions in the region since the presidency of Barack Obama, when they seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from America’s treaty ally, the Philippines, until the present day as they continue to intimidate other South China Sea claimants from pursuit of navigation, fishing, and oil-exploration activities.

Perhaps more concerning than Luo’s proposal is the objective the admiral shares with Chinese President Xi Jinping: resurrecting the traditional hierarchical Asian paradigm in which China acted as the center of a tributary system of various levy-paying vassals whose relative power was starkly inferior to China’s in exchange for the Emperor’s protection. According to today’s Communist Party prelates, China must regain its status as the “Middle Kingdom,” which implies its superior role as the center of the world. China’s objective is really not much different than the Empire of Japan’s objective of a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” the imperialist concept created and promulgated for occupied Asian populations.

The history of the Middle Kingdom is also the basis for China’s illegal claim to the South China Sea. It goes something like this: Because Chinese merchant ships sailed its sea lanes and encamped on its islands for a thousand years, the entire South China Sea is Chinese territory. This is like a businessman who’s been traveling the highway from the suburbs of Connecticut to New York City to work for a number of years and stopping at stations along the way claiming ownership of the entire state of Connecticut.

President Xi, through Admiral Luo, sent a chilling message to South China Sea claimants that have no significant naval or air capability relative to China (Vietnam comes to mind), and which have no security alliance with the US. Simply by goading one of these claimants into a battle, China could test its naval and air capabilities against a beatable opponent in a limited war and thereby become the de facto superpower in the South China Sea. This hypothetical is much more likely to become reality and, therefore, the one that must be prevented.

Where the new “Trump Doctrine” begins is not as important as that it must begin now. If not by engaging Cambodia’s ascendant military leaders to stop China from gaining a military foothold in their country, it can begin in Vietnam by entering a bilateral security alliance to stop China from attacking Vietnam as in the above hypothetical. Or, it can begin in the Philippines by re-leasing the Subic Bay port for the support the US Navy will need to undertake its future mission in the South China Sea.

(The US Navy’s fleeting presence in the region has to date been ineffective. Freedom-of-navigation operations have failed to silence China’s preposterous claim to the South China Sea or halt its unlawful presence and activities in the region. A new US naval base in Southeast Asia is logistically critical to the implementation of a new “Trump Doctrine” and psychologically imperative in projecting America’s power to China.)

President Donald Trump must act now. The nations of Southeast Asian, independently or collectively, will not do anything to challenge China, out of fear. So it is for the US to take action, with the help of its historical allies, to preserve freedom of the sea (which is in every country’s national interest) as well as the rights and privileges the nations of Southeast Asia enjoy under international law. Failure to do so will mean the Communist Party prelates will make the rules in the South China Sea. They will issue laws or policy decrees mandating or proscribing certain actions. International law be damned!

As for America’s lawmakers, they must cease their attempts to make foreign policy in the region (as has been the case with Cambodia) and allow Trump to do his job. These lawmakers seemingly do not recognize what the president and the admirals already know: The United States is at war with China. The US Congress should take heed of the words of George Kennan, who headed the US State Department planning staff at the beginning of the first Cold War:

“We will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives…. We should cease to talk about vague and – for the Far East – unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.”

Keenan’s advice is as good now as it was in 1948. President Xi understands straight power concepts. He has, in fact, already embraced this concept to China’s advantage in the South China Sea.

Only a greater power can defeat a nation employing this concept.

Christopher Beres

Christopher Beres is a lawyer who has represented Cambodia in international litigation. He holds a master’s degree in East Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

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