U.S.-China conflict lurks
While the world is preoccupied with the growing North Korean nuclear threat, a more traditional bigpower conflict between the U.S. and China lurks.
China has been aggressively asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea, upsetting an uneasy balance of power in the region. Several neighboring countries have competing claims, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia but international law and U.S. naval power has helped keep the peace. But over the past few years, China has been upsetting the applecart.
According to international law, each country’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles off a nation’s coastline, while its “exclusive economic zone” extends 200 nautical miles.
As a result, the middle of the South China sea has been open for all nations to navigate, which is crucial since the sea is a major sea lane for international trade. Tremendous power and influence would redound to the country that controlled this important conduit. Therefore U.S. Navy patrols keep these sea lanes open to all.
In recent years, however, China has ignored this 200mile norm and extended its maritime claims to include nearly the entire sea. Doing so expands China’s access to oil and fishing rights, while denying these same rights to others. The Chinese government has declared that any airplane or ship entering this expanded area must identify itself to Chinese authorities, and on several occasions the Chinese navy has harassed ships entering the area.
China has also initiated vast reclamation projects on several rock formations. These unilateral efforts are dangerous for two reasons. First, these rock formation claims are disputed, as several other nations also claim these formations.
Second, rock formations bestow limited territorial rights on the nation that owns them, but international law bestows enhanced rights to formal islands.
Therefore, China’s reclamation projects that turn barren rock formations into islands would increase China’s legal rights if they were recognized internationally. Additionally, China is building military bases on these newly formed islands so it can project military power across the sea.
Seeking redress, the Philippines filed an arbitration case against China at an international tribunal contesting China’s expanded sea claims. The tribunal ruled in the Philippine’s favor, saying China had no “historical right” to the territory. But China flouted the tribunal’s decision, saying it had no jurisdiction.
These acts are alarming China’s neighbors and the U.S. because China’s control of the sea would alter the balance of power in the region. American influence and alliances would weaken, and access to markets and natural resources would wane. China’s reach, on the other hand, would rise. Therefore, the U.S. must reassert itself, having previously done little to deter China’s encroachments.
Traditionally the U.S. has remained neutral regarding these competing national claims but if China persists, the U.S. must make it clear that it will support other nations’ claims against China. What’s more, the U.S. should tell Chinese officials that it will help China’s neighbors defend themselves against their unlawful efforts to control the sea; additional arms sales, enhanced military agreements and joint military exercises would help change China’s calculus.
If China persists, the U.S. could negotiate with regional players to build additional U.S. military bases to help further deter Chinese aggression. The U.S. will also need to counter China’s economic influence by restarting economic trade talks. The Trump administration looks askance at international trade pacts, but it must reengage if it wants to win over more allies in its quest to thwart China’s growing regional influence. The U.S. cannot tolerate Chinese hegemony over the South China Sea.