A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.
HO CHI MINH CITY – Since late 2013, China has been engaged in the frenzied creation of artificial islands and the militarization of the South China Sea. This amounts to an alarming quest for control over a strategically crucial corridor through which $5.3 trillion in trade flows each year. But what is even more shocking – not to mention dangerous – is that China has incurred no international costs for its behavior.
Of course, the international community has a lot on its plate nowadays, not least a massive refugee crisis fueled by chaos in the Middle East. But the reality is that, as long as China feels free to maneuver without consequence, it will continue to do so, fueling tensions with its neighbors that could easily turn into all-out conflict, derailing Asia’s rise.
A key component of China’s strategy in the South China Sea is the dredging of low-tide elevations to make small islands, including in areas that, as China’s deputy foreign minister for Asian affairs, Liu Zhenmin, recently acknowledged, “are far from the Chinese mainland.” In China’s view, that distance makes it “necessary” to build “military facilities” on the islands. And, indeed, three of the seven newly constructed islets include airfields, from which Chinese warplanes could challenge the US Navy’s ability to operate unhindered in the region.
By militarizing the South China Sea, China is seeking to establish a de facto Air Defense Identification Zone like the one that it formally – and unilaterally – declared in 2013 in the East China Sea, where it claims islands that it does not control. China knows that, under international law, its claim to sovereignty over virtually all of the resource-endowed South China Sea, based on an “historic right,” is weak; that is why it has opposed international adjudication. Instead, it is trying to secure “effective control” – which, under international law, enhances significantly the legitimacy of a country’s territorial claim – just as it has done in the Himalayas and elsewhere.
But China’s ambitions extend beyond the South China Sea: It aims to create a strongly Sino-centric Asia. Thus, the country recently established its first overseas military base – a naval hub in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa – and it has repeatedly sent submarines into the Indian Ocean. Moreover, China is engaging in far-reaching economic projects – such as the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which entails the construction of infrastructure linking Asia to Europe – that will strengthen its presence in, and influence over, a number of countries, thereby recasting regional geopolitics in its image.
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama’s administration remains hesitant to back up its much-publicized “pivot” toward Asia with meaningful action – especially action to constrain China. Instead of, say, imposing sanctions or exerting localized military pressure on China, the Obama administration has attempted to pass the buck. Specifically, it has stepped up military cooperation with other Asia-Pacific countries, encouraged other claimants to territory in the South China Sea to shore up their defenses, and supported a more active role in regional security for democratic powers like Australia, India, and even Japan.
To put it bluntly, that is not enough. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, unlike natural islands, China’s constructed islands – which were built on top of natural features that did not originally rise above the water at high tide – do not have sovereignty over 12 nautical miles of surrounding sea. Yet it was not until recently that the United States sent a warship within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island. And even then, it was just a sail-through that an official Chinese mouthpiece dismissed as a “political show.” The US did not challenge China’s territorial claims directly, or demand that China halt its island-building program.
In fact, even as China persists with its fast-paced dredging, which has already created more than 1,200 hectares of artificial land, US officials insist that the South China Sea issue should not be allowed to hijack Sino-American relations. This feckless approach to China’s quietly emerging hegemony in the South China Sea has heightened concerns of the region’s smaller countries. They know that when two great powers bargain with each other, it is countries like them that usually lose.
Some already have. In 2012, China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal, located well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The US, which had just brokered an agreement requiring Chinese and Filipino vessels to withdraw from the area, did nothing, despite its mutual-defense treaty with the Philippines.
But Asia’s smaller countries are not the only ones that should be worried. Given the South China Sea’s strategic importance, disorder there threatens to destabilize the entire region. Moreover, if China gets its way, it will become more assertive in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Perhaps most important, if Chinese bullying enables it to ignore international rules and norms, a very dangerous precedent will have been set. One can easily think of other countries that would be sure to embrace it.