China: US Provocation is an Opportunity to Settle Territorial Disputes and Ensure Regional Stability
China’s aggressive pursuit of its interests and exertion of its influence is once again reemerging as a top security priority of the United States to the benefit of China’s neighbors. Before the Ukraine Crisis and the Islamic State stole the focus of international security, territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea threatened to draw the US and its Asian allies into an armed conflict with China.
Renewed fears of a confrontation have arisen since the battleship USS Lassen came within 12 nautical miles of five reefs near the disputed Spratly Islands, including Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs where China is building artificial islands capable of essentially serving as fixed aircraft carriers. Intended to send a clear message of support to South China Sea nations incapable of fending off China, the US fully understood the Lassen’s route into the disputed waters would be seen as “provocative” and “aggressive,” despite official rhetoric to the contrary.
The patrol of the Lassen was the latest in a progressing series of maneuvers undertaken to redraw the boundaries China has created through its domineering behavior against Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The relatively weak Chinese response, which included threats to accelerate its land reclamation activities, guarantees there will be further actions aimed at reinforcing Western interpretations of international maritime law and refuting Chinese claims.
With that in mind, the US is not necessarily trying to pick a fight with China or even single out China. In his book, “Beyond the Age of Innocence,” former-Singapore Ambassador to the UN Kishore Mahbubani discussed America’s willingness to subsidize global security and enforce international law. He pointed out that the US would even use its military might to intervene against a neighboring ally like Canada, if it tried to block international waters.
At stake is the ability travel freely through the South China Sea without fear of Chinese interference or attack. Just as the integrity of international law and norms are threatened by Russia’s seizure of Crimea in the case of the Ukraine Crisis, the integrity of international maritime law and norms is also threatened by Chinese policies designed to circumvent the rules. For South China Sea countries, their national security, territorial integrity, unsettled claims to a wealth of natural resources, and very sovereignty is threatened by China’s dominance.
Given the Ukraine Crisis and all the threats involving Syria, particularly tensions between Russia and the West, this is far from an ideal time to pick a fight with China. The South China Sea Crisis, as well as the East China Sea Crisis, have been quiet for some time, yet the crisis never disappeared. The unfortunate reality is that the US and the rest of International Community have been distracted by other imminent threats, which have basically allowed China’s domineering policies to go unchecked.
Ignoring the situation has only given China the space needed to the build the artificial islands it is using to legitimize disputed Chinese claims in the South China Sea. A failure to address the underlying issues driving the conflict sooner rather than later will allow China to further entrench itself into disputed territory, thereby making an acceptable, viable resolution far more difficult to develop and implement.
To China’s credit, it has taken steps to deescalate potential conflict by ratcheting down tensions with Vietnam, for example, over the Hai Yang Shi You 981 oil rig it towed into disputed waters in 2014. More policies decisions like this one are needed to ensure all of the issues provoking this regional conflict do not result in armed conflict. Recognizing the artificial islands would best serve a defensive strategy and China’s military is best suited to operate domestically, it appears the Chinese may be seeking a deterrent against armed conflict.
China does not appear to want an armed conflict with the US or its neighbors, especially in the wake of its massive economic crisis, or risk sparking a devastating third world war, which Russia may have been trying to instigate, and nuclear war. Since the Ukraine Crisis as well as the Russian intervention Crisis in Syria, Chinese leadership sees the US is more willing to risk armed conflict. In asserting Chinese interests and influence, it was presuming the US would not risk an armed conflict with China or Russia. That assumption has been proven invalid.
Beijing is, after all, in a tough position. The problem for China is that it has been stoking patriotic, anti-Western sentiments to avoid civil unrest over its inability to deliver on economic promises and other social reforms. At the same time, Chinese leadership is pursing illogical policies, which tends to invite civil unrest. The sheepish response to the US warship’s defiance only validates criticism and shows the weakness of the Communist leader.
The truth is that the Chinese government cannot afford to fight a war against the US and its allies, but it cannot risk internal strife either by appearing too weak to control its own territory. Risking a return to accelerating Chinese aggression, the US cannot simply wait until a more convenient time to resolve the issues driving these territorial disputes. Strategic security and intelligence expert Harry Nimon, who is coauthoring a book on the South China Sea with this writer, has performed simulations that suggest the US and its allies could not dislodge an entrenched China from the South Sea,
Before the situation escalates to an armed standoff, or worse, it is time for China and its neighbors, which are relying on US might to assert their interests, need to resolve this political standoff. Thanks to current conditions, China is not in an ideal position, which means its weaker neighbors are not at a complete disadvantage. It also means China is in a mood to avoid conflict, which means it might be more willing to negotiate instead of risking a conflict by calling America’s bluff. China should use this opportunity to resolve underlying issues within its neighborhood in order to craft viable, balanced solutions and ensure the long-term regional stability it needs.
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