"The defining strategic engagement of the 21st Century is shaping up"by Robert Fry / January 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: what is the US-China dispute in the South China Sea?
Big ideas of 2015: the Chinese lake
The Korean Peninsular has again caught global attention with what North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has claimed to be the test detonation of a hydrogen bomb. North Korea will continue to play a wildcard role in the affairs of East Asia, but it is further south, in the South and East China Seas, that what might be the defining strategic engagement of the 21st Century is shaping up. It is unusual for strategy to be prosecuted by the dumping of industrial aggregate, but that is exactly what is happening around the Spratly Islands, today. Since 2013, China has been dredging the floor of the South China Sea to create seven artificial islands that now total a surface area of over 3,000 acres amongst the Spratlys’ 600 contested rocks, shoals and islets, ownership of which is claimed by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. A similar dispute exists with Japan over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea; taken together, these little local difficulties have the undivided attention of the Americans, for two reasons.
The first is important, but localised, and revolves around an interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). For the US (and most of the international maritime community), the high seas exist beyond a universal 12 nautical mile territorial sea limit granted to all coastal states; for China (and a few other non team players like Iran), 200 nautical miles defines an exclusive economic zone around any sovereign oceanic outcrop, even a very large sandcastle. That, of course, leaves a 188 nautical mile radius of ocean available for strategic miscalculation. The second is important, but global, and is about how America will accommodate the strategic ambition of a rising China.
The strategic geography of the Western Pacific is defined by two island chains. The first island chain takes a line drawn from the Japanese Islands, through Taiwan and south to The Philippines, enclosing the East and South China Seas. The second island chain also starts in Japan but veers east to Guam and ends in Indonesia, enclosing the Philippines Sea. These two imaginary lines in the ocean mark where Chinese and US naval forces are already contesting sea control of the Western Pacific.
The artificial islands serve a number of purposes for the Chinese: first, there is the economic wealth that goes with their claim of 200 nautical mile radius of economic exclusivity; second, the airstrips that are being built on them increase the range of Chinese attack and surveillance aircraft by hundreds of miles; and, third, they dominate the deep water transit routes used by Chinese nuclear armed submarines to gain access to the wider Pacific. The aggregate effect will be the creation of a Chinese lake of 1.7 million square miles between the mainland and the first island chain, through which half of the world’s merchant tonnage passes daily.
For the Americans, the local and global consequences of the islands now become indivisible as the local becomes becomes the Chinese servant of the global, and the US is assiduous in exercising freedom of maritime and air navigation up to the edge of the 12 nautical mile limit they see as codified by UNCLOS. Washington hawks would go further, and, as part of the Obama pivot to the Pacific, pursue an “Archipelagic Strategy” with the forward basing of US forces along the first island chain in order to support wavering allies, exercise legitimate freedoms under international law and prevent Chinese dominance within the first island chain acting as a launchpad to contest the waters enclosed by the second. While only the occasional shot has been fired, the situation is combustible and could easily spiral out of control.
All of which paints an alarming, and historically very conventional, picture based on the assumption that an established power will always resist a rising one, attested to by 2000 years of major conflict from the Punic to the First World Wars. But does it have to be like this, does the strategic calculus of great powers always have to amount to a zero sum of if I win, you lose? Maybe not, and there is something very unChinese about creating hair trigger strategic risk, contrary to both the Confucian and Maoist traditions. Moreover, everything from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to the acquisition of major Hollywood studios suggests China is in the long game of soft power rather than depending on the crude application of the hard stuff. And, a collapsing stock market and a devalued currency hardly create the conditions to take on an America still close to the height of its powers. So, watch this space, but avoid the assumption that some historical automaticity is at play; war and peace in the Twenty First Century is more complicated than that.