In a move that ties into China’s ambition to rebuild the “Silk Road” trade route and assert maritime dominance, the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper mused that war with the United States over disputed South China Sea islands was “inevitable” unless the U.S. backed down.
China has lately decided that the natural beauty of the South China Sea islands would be greatly improved by the construction of huge military airstrips. The resulting increase in the ability of the Chinese military to project power beyond its borders would ostensibly be useful for protecting ships plying China’s enhanced trade routes, as well as benefiting “the whole of international society,” said Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun, according to the UK Telegraph.
Oddly enough, in the very same breath, Yujun said international society had no business in the territory his country claims to be nobly defending. “From the perspective of sovereignty, there is absolutely no difference” between China building on the disputed islands, versus China building roads on its mainland, according to Yujun.
The Telegraph quotes Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, worrying that Beijing might “consider the U.S. to be a declining power and assume that Washington will back down if it shoots down a U.S. observation aircraft.”
This is the sort of situation that could spiral out of control, especially if China is bent on laying such aggressive claims to the disputed territory that it considers those islands legally indistinguishable from its mainland territory. Part of the dangerous miscalculation Dujarric warns about could involve China looking at the Obama administration’s eagerness to strike deals at any price with bad actors like Iran and conclude it can likewise shake the administration down for concessions by refusing to budge an inch or even provoking a confrontation.
For the time being, the U.S. government is holding its ground. The Economist caught Vice President Joe Biden telling naval college graduates that China was “challenging freedom of navigation in the South China Sea by reclaiming land on disputed reefs on a ‘massive scale.'”
The Pentagon is reportedly considering air and sea approaches to the islands to within ranges that would directly challenge China’s territorial claims—a move that Chinese analysts say “may very well force Beijing to respond forcefully.” Meanwhile, China works at a “frantic pace” to build reefs into island real estate that can be developed and leveraged to assert control over nearby waters.
Other powers in the region are apprehensive. The Economist picks up some mixed signals from the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which simultaneously denounced China’s island-building as threatening the “peace, security, and stability” of the region while privately asking the Americans “to avoid ratcheting up tensions,” because “no Asian country wants to be forced to make a clear choice between backing America or backing China.”
As for Taiwan, the Telegraph reports President Ma Ying-jeou is “calling for the different nations laying claim to the South China Sea to put their differences aside and carry out joint development of natural resources.” That doesn’t sound remotely like what China has in mind.