The U.S. Navy recently closed within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-owned islands, effectively kicking a hornet’s nest in the Asia-Pacific region. Why did the United States choose this particular moment to act? I believe that there were three primary considerations in play here:
First is the United States’ desire to sway the stance of its Western allies toward China. After the United Kingdom extended the hand of friendship to China, leaders of other major European nations such as Germany, France and the Netherlands visited China to discuss possibilities for cooperation, sign agreements, and outline future development together, establishing multifaceted strategic partnerships in the spirit of starting anew. The United States was discomfited by this, and as it was unable to restrain its Western allies with the weight of its leadership alone, has hastily sprung into action to show them that they cannot rub shoulders too closely with China, but must stay in line and march to the beat of the American drum in Chinese-related affairs.
Second is the United States’ intent to rally its partners to collectively check China. Ever since the “pivot to Asia” was conceived, the Pacific has not enjoyed any measure of peace, the U.S. tactic being to bind together a portion of Asian-Pacific nations into a lesser NATO in Asia to restrict China’s development. Judging by present circumstances, such a plan is losing viability.
Third is the wish to hasten the adoption of the Trans-Pacific Partnership among Asian-Pacific nations, for which the United States is using both military and economic means. Although at present the TPP agreement has already been signed, there have been emergent tones of opposition from many nations, and the agreement will require the sanction of those nations’ societies as well as their political leaders. The United States is now using military measures such as “escort ships” for its economic initiatives; it is flexing muscle, making a show of strength, and applying pressure on other nations, hoping to delay China’s economic development by writing the economic rulebook for Asia and the Pacific.
Continuing onward, the United States will primarily look to take three actions: Every season it will send ships to the South China Sea to patrol and encroach upon the 12 nautical mile zone surrounding the islands, it will expand military exercises in the vicinity of the islands, and it will accelerate the pace of stationing troops in the Philippines.
In the face of this provocation from the United States, China must prepare a response. First, China must demonstrate its determination through staunch resistance. The South China Sea is a key element in China’s rise, and if China is forced to spar with the United States a third time, it must gather the courage to play the game. Only by gaining victory in the South China Sea will China earn the right to venture forth into the world, and this is a hurdle that cannot be circumvented. Historically, China has won victories against the United States under extremely adverse conditions, and China’s confidence and stamina have only grown in the years since. The United States stirring up conflict in the South China Sea, therefore, is the wrong move made in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Testing its might even as its power wanes against two world powers — China and Russia — will do little for its chances of success. China must prepare for a lengthy battle, as the contest for the South China Sea will test both might and mettle.
Next, China’s tactical response must be measured and orderly. In this most recent incident, the U.S. Navy made no secret of its movements to make a statement, and the Chinese Navy’s response was stern and proportional in protecting its sovereign rights. In the future, China should adopt a four-tiered response to such incidents: foreign navies entering within 200 nautical miles should be monitored closely, then tracked within 24 nautical miles, warned upon approaching the 12 nautical mile zone, and driven out upon crossing that line.
Finally, China must adopt any measures necessary in response to militarization. At this year’s Xiangshan Forum, former U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead raised the subject of “non-militarization” in the South China Sea, but the words fell upon deaf ears and U.S. warships sailed for the region nonetheless, giving off an impression of disordered and unsynchronized policy.
The United States has for some time been dispatching fighters to engage in close reconnaissance in the South China Sea, expanding the scope of military exercises, moving its deployments closer to Chinese shores, and now it wishes to make patrols through that maritime region the norm. As evidenced by these facts, the United States has clearly already militarized the region. China’s original purpose for building up islands in the South China Sea was to provide a public civil good at sea, but in a South China Sea that has now been militarized by the United States, China has no choice but to bolster the construction of the requisite installations in order to effectively safeguard the security of personnel on those islands and protect its national interests. It is likely that U.S. ships will continue to enter those waters, and China must ensure that it holds the initiative firmly within its grasp.
The author is a professor at the PLA National Defence University’s Department of Strategic Studies.
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