As if poking the Russian bear wasn’t enough, the Obama administration has now chosen to rile the Chinese dragon.
In a move meant to project U.S. military power to the Chinese government, American officials announced that U.S. Navy warships will sail directly through a Chinese claimed 12-nautical mile zone in the disputed region of the South China Sea.
The contested waters around the Spratly Islands, which China claims as its own sovereign territory, have been the cause of intense controversy. The U.S. has refused to recognize China’s territorial claims and believes the disputed area resides in international waters.
Last month, at a joint press conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Obama said the two held a “candid discussion” about the disputed territory.
“I conveyed to President Xi our significant concerns over land reclamation, construction and the militarization of disputed areas, which makes it harder for countries in the region to resolve disagreements peacefully,” Obama said.
“I indicated that the United States will continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law allows,” Obama added.
“Islands in the South China Sea since ancient times are China’s territory,” Xi resolutely stated.
The rapid development and scale of the artificial islands created by China have raised alarm bells in numerous other states in the region, a number of which stake their own territorial claims in the area.
China is essentially fortifying its strength projection and defensive capabilities in an area that had been relatively inaccessible before now. The fact that a rising superpower is claiming ownership over an area of strategic importance adjacent to their own coast is relatively unsurprising.
According to a report in the New York Times:
So far the country has built port facilities, military buildings and an airstrip on the islands, and recent imagery shows evidence of two more airstrips under construction. The installations bolster China’s foothold in the Spratly Islands, a disputed scattering of reefs and islands in the South China Sea more than 500 miles from the Chinese mainland.
The decision by the U.S., to revert to a projection of military strength in the region, reveals a complete diplomatic failure of the recent talks between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping over this issue during Xi’s recent visit to the White House.
Although the islands are too small to support large military units, they allow for the Chinese to project a sustained sea and air presence in the area.
The U.S. position is that the Chinese are behaving in a manner inconsistent with international law, according to Pacific Fleet Admiral Scott Swift.
“It’s my sense that some nations view freedom of the seas as up for grabs, as something that can be taken down and redefined by domestic law or by reinterpreting international law,” Swift said, according to a report by Reuters.
“Some nations continue to impose superfluous warnings and restrictions on freedom of the seas in their exclusive economic zones and claim territorial water rights that are inconsistent with (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). This trend is particularly egregious in contested waters.”
Additionally, an anonymous defense source told Foreign Policy that the U.S. was determined to put on a “show of military might.”
“It’s not a question of if, but when,” the official was quoted as saying.
According to the Guardian:
Many experts believe relations between Washington and Beijing have hit their lowest point in years, with tussles and friction over a growing list of issues including cyber espionage, currency manipulation, and human rights.
The U.S. would be severely mistaken if it believes the sending of a warship through what China perceives as sovereign territory will be perceived as anything other than offensive aggression by an imperialist power.
The U.S. is already engaged in proxy wars with Russia in Ukraine and Syria, which have the potential to devolve into an open conflict between the superpowers. Attempting to intimidate the Chinese in their own backyard seems like an extremely ill conceived move at this time.
American actions will inevitably only serve to bring the Russo-Sino strategic military alliance into closer consultation with one another in an attempt to stem U.S. global imperialism.
“[It is] hard to see how this ends well, but the only other option for the US is to concede, which will materially damage US credibility in Asia, be viewed by[Chinese] policymakers as further evidence that the US is in terminal decline and be an additional impetus for Beijing to push harder against the US in Asia,” China expert Bill Bishop wrote in his Sinocism newsletter on Friday.
While this may be extremely good news for defense contractors and weapons manufacturers, it’s extremely dangerous news for the rest of the world. One strategic miscalculation could result in events spiraling drastically out of control.