On Using US Encroachment into the South China Sea as a ‘Whetstone’

Usually the very picture of propriety, the United States has finally doffed both jacket and tie and revealed the war paint beneath, casting aside any semblance of “neutrality” and “impartiality” on the South China Sea issue. Beyond orchestrating the farcical Philippines vs. China arbitration case, the United States has not shrunk from deploying guided missile destroyers, aircraft carriers and strategic bombers to the South China Sea in a show of force. Viewed from this perspective, the bristling indignation of the Chinese people is entirely understandable.

But upon further rumination, it becomes evident that the United States’ party-crashing antics in the South China Sea do not convey a message of power and confidence, but quite the opposite. They are a reflection of growing discomfiture and dismay in Washington over rapid Chinese development and the inexorable decline of U.S. hegemony. China has no need to work itself into a lather over U.S. provocations; indeed, it is paramount that it remains calm and manages such affairs rationally, systematically and always to its advantage. And it is ultimately not China that should be worried, but the U.S. hegemonists. There are two sides to every coin, and even as the United States seeks out every opportunity to incite conflict, such has also been an enormous boon to Beijing.

First, the U.S. military vessels and aircraft entering the South China Sea provide a “blue army” at no cost to China that will allow us to perform joint military exercises at sea, effectively serving as a strategic “whetstone.” Our ship and plane crews will be able to hone their skills under real, non-simulated conditions, augmenting all aspects of our military from strategic planning and conducting strategic campaigns to combat coordination and tactical skill.

Next, U.S. actions have clearly demonstrated to even the gentlest souls among us that trouble will always find us even if we do not seek it out. The world is not at peace, and how to foster peace and development remain the two great unresolved questions of the modern era. Events in the South China Sea are a sobering draught that has banished the final wisps of illusion masking the United States’ hegemonic aspirations with pretensions to being a “civilized” and “benevolent” nation.

Third, these doings have provided us with an opportunity to show the whole world that China holds indisputable historical and legal bases for its sovereignty over the “ancestral waters” of the South China Sea. China must lead others to more broadly understand the true nature of the issue and the myriad truths and falsehoods within, as well as China’s no-nonsense stance with regard to the territorial sovereignty of the nation and its earnest commitment to maintaining regional peace and stability.

Fourth, U.S. provocations have been effective at mobilizing all Chinese at home and abroad, rising up in their anger to stand together and with unity of spirit in order to more resolutely safeguard China’s territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests, and the honor of its people. It has also reminded us that China must continually work to fortify islands and shoals in the South China Sea against a sea-borne threat that grows more pressing by the day.

The former sage Mencius once said that “without concerns both within and without, a nation is doomed to fall.” Battles fought without firing a single shot and the occasional meticulously-planned “accidental” missile strike or collision notwithstanding, for the past several decades China has generally not been involved in open armed conflict. These long days of peace have gradually given rise to certain “ills,” with some truly coming to believe that the “big bad wolf” is no more. But even as we might stand and proclaim that “the world is at peace,” new challenges are gathering like clouds on the horizon. If not for the rude awakening provided by U.S. rabble rousing in the South China Sea, there would yet be those sound asleep in these fantasies.

Bringing about the resurgence of the Chinese people in this century is an undertaking of unprecedented magnitude, and it is difficult to imagine that achievement on so great a scale will be completed in the space of a short waltz along a broad walk strewn with flowers. This path to restoration must inevitably run across a number of obstacles, and as we are now approaching the final stretch with the finish line in sight, such hurdles will only become more difficult to surmount. To the very end, we must remain sharp of eye and clear of mind. For China, there is value in the United States’ hegemonic swagger in that it has been a clarion call to us at this key turn in history, for the sense of crisis and apprehension it creates will rally our courage, focus our spirit and drive us to enact the policies we need.

The author is an expert on Chinese military strategy and a major general in the People’s Liberation Army.

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