The U.S. dawdles as China extends its maritime dominationEditorial, Wall Street Journal, Mar 26
China is building military bases on artificial islands hundreds of miles off its coast, in waters claimed by six other countries. These new fortresses in the South China Sea raise the risk of war, yet Washington seems to have no strategy to address them. Are the U.S. and its allies ceding the nearly 1.35 million square miles claimed by China without legal merit, including some of the busiest sea lanes on the planet?
Over the past year Chinese dredging and other landfill techniques have transformed tiny reefs into potential homes for military aircraft, ships, radar facilities and other assets. Formerly underwater during high tide, Johnson Reef is now a 25-acre landmass. Nearby Hughes Reef has grown big enough to host two piers and a cement plant. Gaven Reef is now 28 acres, with a helipad and antiaircraft tower. Fiery Cross Reef has grown 11-fold since August, with what appears to be a three-kilometer airstrip under construction. All are part of the Spratly islands, a cluster of rocks between the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, often some 650 miles from China.
U.S. Senators John McCain, Jack Reed, Bob Corker and Bob Menendez last week wrote a bipartisan letter asking Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry not to overlook China’s behavior. At stake, the Senators note, is the security of U.S. allies in Asia, the continued free flow of $5 trillion a year in oil, iPhones and other trade through the South China Sea, and the principle of “peaceful resolution of disputes.”
U.S. executive officials have done little more than politely ask Beijing to stop, citing a 2002 pledge by China and its neighbors to avoid provocative actions. Some in Washington don’t even see a problem. Former Obama Pentagon official Shawn Brimley has quoted an unnamed former colleague dismissing China’s Spratly fortresses as “a bunch of easy targets that would be taken out within minutes of a real contingency.” That is hardly comforting since the purpose of the bases is to change the status quo during peacetime.
The Senate letter asks the Administration to report on “specific actions the United States can take to slow down or stop China’s reclamation activities.” It further suggests publicizing relevant intelligence more regularly, calibrating U.S.-China security cooperation to encourage better Chinese behavior, and deepening U.S. partnerships across Asia.
However, U.S. defense cuts and a general impression of American retreat don’t inspire confidence. Asian states know they have to live next to China, so they hesitate to resist Chinese ambitions unless they feel Washington is a reliable partner.
The U.S. would help security in Asia if it began imposing costs on Chinese aggression. That would require accepting greater risk in U.S.-Chinese relations, but the alternative is watching China continue what it intends to be a gradual march to domination of the Western Pacific.
Washington could start by expanding training for the threats posed in the South China Sea, where China uses military, coast guard and civilian vessels to challenge others (such as the Philippine marines on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys) and extend its military and economic reach (as with the oil rig it planted in Vietnamese waters last year). The U.S. could also jointly patrol the area with forces from the Philippines, Japan or other willing partners. Trying to work through the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations is probably futile.
The U.S. could also invite Taiwanese participation in the next Rim of the Pacific naval exercise set for 2016. China earned its first invitation in 2014, despite its adversarial record, while Taiwan was left out. Washington could also finally sell Taiwan upgraded F-16 fighter jets and help it field modern submarines, something first promised in 2001.
“The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” Hillary Clinton said in 2010. Five years later China is imposing its will more forcefully than ever. The U.S. and its partners may not have another five years to dawdle.