Much more is at stake in the US decision to challenge China by sending a destroyer near islands it built in the South China Sea than a handful of rocks, even if they sit on major shipping lines and deposits of natural resources.
China, analysts say, is seeking to instituted a sphere of impact in these waters and edge out the United States.
What that means whether it represents a crisis, or a natural and inevitable shift given China’s economic strength depends on whom you ask. But there is little doubt that China is thinking big about how these islands could limit America’s military options, about how control over these waters could give it levitation over key trade routes and about how making the United States look hapless could strengthen its diplomatic clout in the region.
“They have a game plan; it is very clear what it is,” said Christopher K Johnson, senior adviser on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington at a recent seminar. “Sometimes, I think it is easy to get lost in the weeds on what has been built on which island.”
On late Monday, the United States sent a guided missile destroyer into waters near one of the artificial islands, Subi Reef, that China considers its territory. China promptly called the naval patrol a “deliberate provocation.”
The construction of the islands, which has also involved building military installations and runways, shows how China is determined to push back the United States’ post-World War II alliance system, some experts say.
The United States sent ships and planes to the Taiwan Strait with impunity during a crisis 20 years ago in what was considered a strategic backyard for US forces. It would be much more difficult today for the United States to act in the same manner, Johnson said.
To achieve its goals, China is spending heavily on its navy, including on nuclear-powered submarines. The construction of a second aircraft carrier is underway to supplement the first carrier, launched in 2012. Its coast guard is growing rapidly and now has the world’s largest cutter, a 10,000-metric-ton vessel built at the Jiangnan Shipyard, where its builders nicknamed it the “monster.”
Shipbuilding for China’s coast guard is so robust that the fleet now has more than three times as many ships than had been planned just a few years ago, said Ryan D Martinson, research administrator at the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
The buildup of maritime power means China, traditionally a continental power, is transforming its capabilities in an effort to secure its interests along the vital sea lanes that pass from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca and across the Indian Ocean to Africa and the Middle East into Europe. Much of China’s commercial trade and energy supplies travel that route.
How the South China Sea would operate with a dominant China is a matter of debate.
Does China want to threaten foreign powers with force if they intervene, a model fashioned after the Monroe Doctrine, asked M. Taylor Fravel, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If the goal was to try to exclude the United States, then China’s actions so far have been reverse, he said.
Fravel suggested that the free flow of shipping through the South China Sea was not incompatible with greater Chinese influence in the region.
“If the attraction of China’s economy and of Chinese investment is one source of political impact, China has few incentives to interfere with the international waterways in the South China Sea,” he said. “In fact, such interference would likely weaken China’s influence and not enhance it. If China aspires to greater influence in the region, its ability to achieve and maintain that influence requires ensuring an open, dynamic trading system that links Asia with other regions.”
Others are less optimistic.
Creating a sphere of impact in the South China Sea would not necessarily mean China would abide by the rules, Kurt M. Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said at the recent Center for Strategic and International Studies seminar.
The United States is trying to persuade China to sustain the post-World War II operating system in Asia freedom of navigation, peaceful settlement of disputes and fidelity of contracts that has given Asia perhaps its best four or five decades in 1,000 years, Campbell said. But now the Chinese are saying the status quo no longer holds in the South China Sea.
It is natural, but worrying, that as a rising power challenging the existing order, China wants to put its “own stamp on things,” he said.
“If you listen very carefully to Chinese friends, they are saying this is no longer an international waterway,” Campbell said. “That we will provide safety for the ships transmitting this water. My own personal view is that this is antithetical to our strategic interests and in fact antithetical to Chinese strategic interests.”
Despite concerns in the United States, it is not in China’s interests to use force to get its way in the South China Sea, said Wu Xinbo, director of the center of American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “It would be foolish for China to use force on other claimants in the South China Sea. The political and strategic cost is too high.”
China’s objectives are not necessarily sinister and from its point of view represent a “sensible” strategic approach, said former Rear Adm. Michael McDevitt, now a senior fellow at CNA, a nonprofit research organization in Arlington, Virginia.
“Since the South China Sea was the traditional route the West used on the way to invading, China wants to make sure that eventually they can establish sea control in the South China Sea in times of conflict,” McDevitt said, referring to Britain and other European powers. “It is our job to make sure that they cannot keep us at bay should there be a conflict.”
Hugh White, a critic of the United States’ response to China’s growing power whose message is unpopular in Washington but well received among Chinese analysts, said China’s short-term goal in the South China Sea was to throw its weight around and to show America’s allies that the US was unable to respond effectively.
The Obama administration had tried with its freedom-of-navigation maneuver near the artificial island, Subi Reef, to show that it was doing something to counter Chinese ambitions, said White, a professor of strategic studies at Australian National University.
But the action was too timid, he said. The destroyer traveled within 12 nautical miles of the new island, and then left quietly and quickly, and US officials were barred from describing it in any detail. It left the opposite impression of being strong in the face of a determined power and allowed the Chinese to move ahead undeterred, he said.
“It showed just how reluctant Washington is to stand up to China for fear of provoking a crisis,” White said.