Before the Ukraine Crisis and the rise of the Islamic State, escalating Chinese aggression had become a focal point for US national security as the Obama Administration tried to make reengagement in Asia a top priority. Despite a temporary plateau in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute, tensions have steadily intensified. The South China Sea has long been an area of potential conflict, but China’s decision to build artificial islands and stock those structures with military hardware is raising alarms.
At the root of this brewing South China Sea conflict is China’s claim that it owns somewhere around 80 percent of the waters. Clearly, this conflicts with the standard territorial claim supported by International Law of 12 nautical miles from a nation’s coast, plus up to 200 nautical miles for a so-called exclusive economic zone. In a region of densely populated countries rot with poverty, the South China Sea represents more than just a lucrative trade route for the developed world. Losing their rights to the South China Sea and its immense resources may well doom the economic future of the Peoples of surrounding nations.
From the Chinese perspective, the Communist government considers its efforts to solidify its claim over the South China Sea to be a precaution. Releasing a white paper entitled “China’s Military Strategy,” the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, warned of countries that were “busy meddling” in the South China Sea and declared China’s intent to gradually engage in "open seas protection." What Beijing sees is a region of countries preparing to develop the South China Sea for their own uses, alongside the commercial endeavors of the International Community. If China does not move to secure its claims now, it will likely lose the ability to do so.
The strategy of China appears to be a gradual reshaping of how foreigners operate within the South China Sea where it uses an increasing military presence to dissuade commercial and military enterprises from utilizing the body of water. Adhering to the old adage, “if you want to cook a frog, heat the water slowly,” the preferred methodology of the Communist government likely involves enforcing its claims over the water by steadily integrating small changes in how ships are allowed to operate in the Sea and engaging in minimal confrontation. The goal will be to avoid alarm.
The last thing the Chinese government wants is armed conflict over the South China Sea. In fact, their approach may well be their way of securing the resources China needs without provoking their neighbors. Like a lawyer who thinks a corporation can buy the water rights to rain and tell thirsty people in a desert that they do not have a right to drink, the Chinese strategy can only end in war. The resources of the South China Sea must be available to all the Peoples and nations bordering the South China Sea while the sharing of those resources must become an active diplomatic effort throughout the region.
On May 25, 2015, The Wall Street Journal published an opt-ed entitled “Rise of the Regional Hegemons” that argued China, Russia, and Iran are emerging as regional hegemonic powers at a time when the United States, which is a global hegemonic power, is retreating from the world. This writer has, however, long argued the use of what are being called “regional hegemons” to bolster US influence. The truth is that there are limitations to US resources while the number of crises around the world are growing and the International Community is transforming from a monopolar world dominated by US influence to a multipolar world where various regional powers have increasing influence in world affairs.
Although aggression by countries like China, Russia, and Iran demonstrate the diminished ability of the US to directly assert its influence, which was true during the Cold War when we lived in a bipolar world, the trend is driven by the resovereignization and democratization of the International Community. Not only has the United States lead the democratization of the Peoples of the world, it has driven the democratization of the International Community as well. Instead of simply following the lead of the United States, because it is so powerful, the nations of the world feel they have the right to act as see fit and to reassert their sovereignty.
Quite frankly, the United States has seen its own allies push back against its policies as part of this shift in how the International Community operates. This was particularly apparent under the George W. Bush Administration. In recognizing this trend, America can respond by building and strengthening our alliances in ways that result in more coequal partnership instead of ones where we clearly dominate the relationship. America’s strength has always come from its ability to respect and fulfill the mutual interests of its allies. Consequently, the domineering stances of China, Russia, and Iran are best addressed through stronger allies of the willing.
As an outside party, the United States has significant, but fewer direct interests in Asia. Unlike China’s neighbors, the US is not in direct competition with China or its neighbors. US efforts to corral China do, however, offer regional powers like India, South Korea, and Japan room to assert their interests and balance Chinese aggression. Consequently, the weaker countries of the world need the United States to remain a global hegemonic power in order to neutralize the threats of regional hegemonic powers bent on world domination.
Finally, it is important to recognize countries like China can only assert their regional influence, if rebellion from their neighbors can be suppressed. Where Iran has Saudi Arabia and Russia has Europe to balance their aggression, China has India. Fortunately, Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not appears to a sleeping tiger while he seems to recognize the necessity of building bridges with India’s neighbors. Where China seeks to lure its neighbors into a false sense of security and dependency before ambushing them, India under Modi appears to want to avoid conflict and address serious regional issues.
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