China is win­ning the bat­tle for the South China Sea

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - BRAHMA CHEL­LANEY

U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis has spo­ken out against China’s strat­egy of “in­tim­i­da­tion and co­er­cion” in the South China Sea, in­clud­ing the de­ploy­ment of anti-ship mis­siles, sur­face-toair mis­siles and elec­tronic jam­mers, and, more re­cently, the land­ing of nu­clear-ca­pa­ble bomber air­craft at Woody Is­land. There are, Mat­tis warned, “con­se­quences to China ig­nor­ing the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.”

But what con­se­quences? Two suc­ces­sive U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tions – for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s and now Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s – have failed to push back cred­i­bly against China’s ex­pan­sion­ism in the South China Sea, which has ac­cel­er­ated de­spite a 2016 in­ter­na­tional ar­bi­tral tri­bunal rul­ing in­val­i­dat­ing its ter­ri­to­rial claims there. In­stead, the U.S. has re­lied on rhetoric or sym­bolic ac­tions.

For ex­am­ple, the United States has dis­in­vited China from this sum­mer’s 26-coun­try Rim of the Pa­cific (RIMPAC) naval ex­er­cise. The move has been played up as a po­ten­tial in­di­ca­tion that the U.S. may fi­nally be adopt­ing a tougher ap­proach to­ward China. Mat­tis him­self has called the de­ci­sion an “ini­tial response” to China’s mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the South China Sea, which is twice the size of the Gulf of Mex­ico and 50 per­cent big­ger than the Mediter­ranean Sea.

Sim­i­larly, the U.S. Navy’s free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion oper­a­tions, which are oc­cur­ring more reg­u­larly un­der Trump than they did un­der Obama, have been widely hyped.

Af­ter the most re­cent op­er­a­tion, in which a guided-mis­sile cruiser and a de­stroyer sailed past the dis­puted Para­cel Is­lands, Mat­tis de­clared that the U.S. was the “only coun­try” to stand up to China. But China, too, has used Amer­ica’s FON oper­a­tions to play to the Chi­nese pub­lic, claim­ing af­ter the lat­est op­er­a­tion that its navy had “warned and ex­pelled” two U.S. war­ships. More im­por­tant, nei­ther FON oper­a­tions nor China’s ex­clu­sion from the RIMPAC ex­er­cise ad­dresses the shifts in re­gional dy­nam­ics brought about by China’s is­land-build­ing and mil­i­ta­riza­tion, not to men­tion its bul­ly­ing of its neigh­bors. As a re­sult, they will not cred­i­bly de­ter China or re­as­sure U.S. al­lies.

The re­al­ity is that China’s in­cre­men­tal en­croach­ments have col­lec­tively changed the facts in the South China Sea. It has con­sol­i­dated its con­trol over the strate­gic cor­ri­dor be­tween the In­dian and Pa­cific Oceans, through which one-third of global mar­itime trade – worth $5.3 tril­lion last year – passes. It is also as­sert­ing con­trol over the re­gion’s nat­u­ral re­sources by bul­ly­ing and co­erc­ing other claimants seek­ing to ex­plore for oil and gas in ter­ri­to­ries that they them­selves con­trol, un­der the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea. Viet­nam, for ex­am­ple, has been forced to scrap a project on its own con­ti­nen­tal shelf.

Per­haps most omi­nous, China’s devel­op­ment of for­ward op­er­at­ing bases on man-made South China Sea is­lands “ap­pears com­plete,” as Adm. Philip Davidson told a Se­nate com­mit­tee in April be­fore tak­ing over the U.S. Indo-Pa­cific Com­mand. “China is now ca­pa­ble of con­trol­ling the South China Sea in all sce­nar­ios short of war with the U.S.,” Davidson con­firmed.

Davidson’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion is re­veal­ing. As China takes a long-term strate­gic ap­proach to strength­en­ing its hold over the South China Sea (and, in­creas­ingly, be­yond), the U.S. is fo­cused solely on the prospect of all-out war.

The Pen­tagon has flaunted its ca­pa­bil­ity to de­mol­ish China’s ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands, whose cre­ation Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has cited as one of his key ac­com­plish­ments. “I would just tell you,” joint staff direc­tor Lt. Gen. Ken­neth McKen­zie re­cently said, “the U.S. mil­i­tary has had a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence in the western Pa­cific tak­ing down small is­lands.”

If open war is China’s only vul­ner­a­bil­ity in the South China Sea, the U.S. will lose the larger strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion. While seek­ing to pro­tect its mil­i­tary free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion in the South China Sea, the U.S. has turned a blind eye to China’s stealthy but ag­gres­sive as­sault on the free­dom of the seas, in­clud­ing re­strict­ing the rights of other coun­tries in the re­gion.

The only vi­able op­tion is a cred­i­ble strat­egy that pushes back against China’s use of co­er­cion to ad­vance its ter­ri­to­rial and mar­itime re­vi­sion­ism.

As Adm. Harry Harris cau­tioned last month while de­part­ing as head of the U.S. Indo-Pa­cific Com­mand, “With­out fo­cused in­volve­ment and en­gage­ment by the U.S. and our al­lies and part­ners, China will re­al­ize its dream of hege­mony in Asia.”

Sim­ply put, China is win­ning the bat­tle for the South China Sea with­out fir­ing a shot – or pay­ing any in­ter­na­tional costs. While Trump is sus­tain­ing this trend, it be­gan un­der Obama, on whose watch China cre­ated seven ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands and started mil­i­ta­riz­ing them.

Obama’s si­lence in 2012 when China oc­cu­pied the dis­puted Scar­bor­ough Shoal – a tra­di­tional Philip­pine fish­ing ground lo­cated within that coun­try’s ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone – em­bold­ened China to em­bark on a broader is­land-build­ing strat­egy in the South China Sea the fol­low­ing year. By the time the U.S. re­al­ized the scope and scale of China’s land-recla­ma­tion pro­gram, Rus­sia grabbed its at­ten­tion by an­nex­ing Crimea. Yet the long-term strate­gic im­pli­ca­tions of what China has achieved in the South China Sea are far more se­ri­ous.

Un­for­tu­nately, when it comes to con­strain­ing China’s ex­pan­sion­ism, Trump seems just as clue­less as his pre­de­ces­sor. Fo­cused ob­ses­sively on three is­sues – trade, North Korea and Iran – Trump has watched qui­etly as China builds up its mil­i­tary as­sets through fren­zied con­struc­tion of per­ma­nent fa­cil­i­ties on newly re­claimed land. And now China has be­gun mak­ing strate­gic in­roads in the In­dian Ocean and the East China Sea, threat­en­ing the in­ter­ests of more coun­tries, from In­dia to Japan.

The South China Sea has been and will re­main cen­tral to the con­test for in­flu­ence in the larger Indo-Pa­cific re­gion. Thanks to U.S. feck­less­ness, the widely shared vi­sion of a free, open and demo­cratic-led Indo-Pa­cific could give way to an il­lib­eral, re­pres­sive re­gional or­der, with China in full con­trol.

The U.S. has turned a blind eye to China’s stealthy but ag­gres­sive as­sault

Brahma Chel­laney, pro­fes­sor of strate­gic stud­ies at the New Delhi-based Cen­ter for Pol­icy Re­search and fel­low at the Robert Bosch Academy in Ber­lin, is the au­thor of nine books, in­clud­ing “Asian Jug­ger­naut,” “Wa­ter: Asia’s New Bat­tle­ground,” and “Wa­ter, Peace, and War: Con­fronting the Global Wa­ter Cri­sis.” THE DAILY STAR pub­lishes this com­men­tary in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Project Syn­di­cate © (www.project-syn­di­cate.org).

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