Since the 1990s, China has insistently waged a slow and deliberate imperial war of territorial expansion in the South China Sea.
“Imperial war” is the apt description. China exhibits classic imperial ambition. Using economic, diplomatic and military muscle (camouflaged by propaganda), Beijing adds territory to its imperial dominion at the expense of less powerful neighbors.
In 1950, the newly installed Communist regime in Beijing took Tibet. The Communists defended their action by claiming that “traditionally” Tibet was a Chinese province. As progressive Communists they were liberating Tibet from non-progressives. If that sounds like old time Communist propaganda gospel, it was.
Invading Tibet took two weeks. By mid-1951, Beijing had full control of the country.
Weeks and months were the time metric for China’s Tibet operation. Soldiers armed with rifles and artillery pieces were the means.
Reporters and headline writers understand the pace and weaponry of that kind of war – rapidly seizing objectives while firing guns.
Tibet is a destination for Buddhist pilgrims and mountain climbers, not an international trade route. So who cared? India cared. Tibet is an invasion route into India. India felt threatened. In 1962, the Sino-Indian War flared over control of southern Himalayan passes. China won. So China’s invasion of Tibet stood and still stands.
Beijing’s South China Sea invasion moves at a different pace: decades. That makes recognizing the invasion difficult and confronting it even more problematic.
News media focus on hours, days and weeks, perhaps a year or two. Politicians, particularly in democracies, focus on electoral time. U.S. presidents have a four to eight year policy window – not even a decade.
Over the last 30 years, China’s principal weapon systems in the South China Sea haven’t been bayonets, aircraft and warships, though Beijing is making increasing use of those classic means of coercion and menace.
China’s principal weapons have been offshore construction barges, construction crews and exploratory oil drilling rigs, all supported by shepherding coast guard vessels and swarms of fishing boats.
The barge-borne construction crews usually begin with a “sea feature” like a reef or a rock in the South China Sea. A sea feature is not habitable. A sea feature is not, in and of itself, sovereign territory.
No matter. Only power matters to Beijing. The construction crews add thousands of cubic meters of dredged sand and reinforced concrete to the sea feature. Voila, an artificial islet. The crews top their manufactured islet with military-grade runways capable of handling high-performance combat aircraft. If the final product looks something like a stationary naval aircraft carrier surrounded by a strip of sand, that isn’t a glitch, it’s a feature.
The counterfeit archipelago Beijing has created now extends south from the Chinese coast and Hainan Island to close to Borneo and the Filipino island of Palawan.
Beijing has added a political coup de grace: the counterfeit archipelago is now sovereign Chinese territory, like Shanghai. Beijing’s claim is utter fraud. It has no legitimate historical claim to the area.
China’s man-made islands encroach on the sovereign territory and Exclusive Economic Zones of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. The islets and Beijing’s claim to sovereignty also challenge Indonesian territorial sovereignty. Singapore is wary, and Singapore sits on the Strait of Malacca, the primary shipping route between the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Every year, ships hauling goods worth some five trillion dollars traverse the South China Sea. China’s counterfeit islands disrupt this traffic.
This isn’t the distant Shangri-La of Tibet. This is a non-theoretical threat to global trade.
China’s aggression has provoked intense resistance, particularly from Vietnam and the Philippines. But 2017 finds the Philippines buckling, despite its court victory. During the Obama Administration, the U.S. Navy did conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations to assert maritime right of passage. However, I think Beijing read the Obama Administration as feckless and unwilling to lead. Its island-creation program intensified.
The Trump Administration has said China’s South China Sea invasion won’t stand. In many quarters this is read as provocative. I say this response from Washington is long overdue.