China flexes its muscles over islands

By Dale R. Herspring

The South Pacific and South China Sea are increasingly becoming an area of contention involving China and some of its neighbors, especially the Phil-ippines and Vietnam but also Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Taiwan.

China believes it is becoming a “great power,” and is beginning to flex its muscles by claiming parts of the South China Sea as centuries-old Chinese possessions. These mostly are isolated, often tiny, islands. Such an expansionist approach, one that it knows will — and has —increased the U.S. presence in the region is easy to understand. Studies suggest that the area is rich in oil and natural gas — as much 200 billion barrels of oil and nearly 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

To legitimate its claim, the Chinese have expanded representation of a speck known as Yongxing Island. more than 400 miles south of the Chinese Island of Hainan, in its legislature. The Chinese also claim sovereignty over a large number of islands in the South China Sea, including more than 40 islands that Beijing says are illegally occupied by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.  In all, China claims sovereignty over 80 percent of the 1.5 million-square-mile South China Sea. 

This enables Beijing to show the rest of the world that it has become a major regional power, not just over the islands but in other matters with these six countries. This is worrisome in that nearly half of U.S. trade with East Asia goes directly through that region. If China decided to close part or all of “its territories” to “outsiders,” it could mean an economic disaster for the United States.

This is the main reason the United States has begun to shift naval assets to the Pacific. No other country there is strong enough to counter the Chinese. Already, the decision has been made to station 5,000 Marines in northern Australia. There is also talk of stationing one of our aircraft carriers in the region. That means more than one ship because carriers are accompanied by a couple of submarines, destroyers, an Aegis class cruiser and an oiler. The problem is that given the way the Obama administration has decided to slash money for the military, covering both the Middle East and South Asia may be difficult.  Given the commitments we have in both regions, the number of ships may fall below the strength needed for the mission. 

The other Asian countries have become increasingly forthright in recent years. In 1992, the Philippines kicked the United States out of its base in Subic Bay. The United States also left Clark Air Force Base in 1991 in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, though 600 U.S. Special Operations troops advise and assist the Philippine army in its fight against Muslim fanatics sympathetic to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, with 7,107 islands, the Philippines seeks strengthen its maritime defenses, especially in the South China Sea. 

Talks are going on between the United States and Phil-ippines over whether to allow the United States to station military forces in the islands, something that could upset local sensitivities. One approach could permit the deployment of U.S. troops or ships as long as they do not remain permanently.

Imagining the Vietnamese welcoming the United States as a liberator could be even more difficult. However, Vietnam’s hostility to the United States is a recent phenomenon; its hostility toward China is centuries old. Vietnam has its own territorial disputes with the Chinese and does not want Beijing to become too powerful.

We are far from setting up those types of arrangements with the Philippines with Vietnam. Yet it is clear that the Vietnamese need and want our support to counter the Chinese. A U.S. warship visited the Vietnamese naval base at Cam Ranh Bay last August — the first such visit in 38 years. 

China will likely be the next great challenge for the U.S. military and economy. No one wants a military conflict, and hopefully we can avoid one. The Obama administration has been wise to build up its forces in the region. The Chinese do not want conflict with us, nor do we want one with them.

China has repeatedly decried our increased presence in the region. My concern is whether we will have sufficient naval assets there to get the Chinese to take us seriously.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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