Since 1949, China has been redrawing its frontiers. This still remains an unfinished task for its rulers.
China’s territorial expansions in the South China Sea, without incurring any international costs, are whetting its growing interest in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. This shows that the South China Sea is critical to the contest for influence from the Middle East to the Pacific.
Yet, the Obama administration has focused its concern on safeguarding freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, not on finding ways to stop China from altering the status quo in its favor. ASEAN disunity has also aided China’s strategy.
Emboldened by international inaction and a series of crises that have helped divert global attention, Beijing has been feverishly turning low-tide elevations in the South China Sea into small islands by dredging seabed material and then dumping it using pipelines and barges. In the process, it has been creating new “facts on the ground,” including military facilities, for enforcing an air defense identification zone without having to declare one.
China’s militarization of the South China Sea not only threatens freedom of navigation in the South China Sea but is also encouraging aggressive Chinese coastguard patrolling. Hanoi, for example, has accused Chinese patrols of frequently intercepting Vietnamese fishing boats, ramming them, damaging equipment, and beating up crews.
Against this background, the South China Sea has emerged as the symbolic center of the international maritime challenges of the 21st century. The region is important even for countries in the Middle East and Europe because what happens there will impinge on larger maritime security. Indeed, developments in the South China Sea — the world’s newest maritime hot spot — carry the potential of upending even the current liberal world order by permitting brute power to trump rules.
The sea’s centrality to the international maritime order should induce likeminded states to work closely together to positively shape developments, including by ensuring that continued unilateralism is not cost-free. Only sustained pressure can persuade Beijing that its future lies in cooperation and not confrontation.