U.S.-China con­flict lurks

The Phoenix - - OPINION - Adam Goldin Colum­nist

While the world is pre­oc­cu­pied with the grow­ing North Korean nu­clear threat, a more tra­di­tional big-power 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 oth- ers. 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.

Adam Goldin is a Philadel­phi­abased econ­o­mist with mas­ter’s de­grees in both eco­nom­ics and in­ter­na­tional af­fairs. He re­sides in Ch­ester County. Email: adam.goldin@out­look. com

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