Image: A photograph provided by the Philippine military of Chinese construction on Johnson South Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.CreditArmed Forces Of The Philippines, via European Pressphoto Agency
By the Pentagon’s account, two Chinese fighter jets performed an “unsafe” maneuver this week by flying within 50 feet of an American surveillance plane over the South China Sea. That’s not much more than a hairbreadth, aeronautically speaking, and a collision could have been catastrophic — to the crews and to the already fragile diplomatic relations between China and its regional neighbors and the United States.
China has been behaving in a bellicose fashion in the South China Sea for some time as part of a sustained and increasingly dangerous effort to assert sovereignty over a vital waterway in which other nations also have claims. In a few weeks, an international arbitration court is expected to rule in a case brought against China by the Philippines. The outcome could have a profound effect on the struggle for control of the sea, which is rich in resources and carries $5 trillion in annual trade.
Many experts expect the court to rule against China. The right response would be for China to accept the court’s decision and work with the Philippines and other neighboring countries that have interests in the region — Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan — on a mutually acceptable resolution to their rival claims. But whether it will respond that way remains to be seen. So far, Beijing has refused to acknowledge the court’s jurisdiction, even though it ratified the treaty under which the case was brought — the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, guaranteeing unimpeded passage on the high seas for trade, fishing and oil exploration.
China’s most aggressive and outrageous tactic has been to use tons of dirt and gravel and rocks to transform small reefs and rocks into artificial islands with airstrips and other military structures, including runways capable of handling military aircraft. According to the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military, over the last two years China added more than 3,200 acres of land to the seven outposts in the Spratly Islands, while other countries that occupy disputed rocks and reefs in the archipelago added about 50 acres. China’s neighbors fear that Beijing intends to use these outposts to interfere with navigation and their rights to fish and drill for oil and gas.
More broadly, the report described an ambitious military buildup aimed at projecting power so that China can “defend itself and its sovereignty claims.” This includes a 2015 defense budget estimated conservatively at $180 billion, up 9.8 percent annually since 2006; the largest navy in Asia, with more than 300 surface ships; plans to have as many as 78 ballistic missile submarines by 2020; and new investments in nuclear and anti-satellite weapons.
These issues are expected to be a major focus of President Obama’s trip to Asia, which is scheduled to begin this weekend with visits to Vietnam and Japan. Many of China’s nervous neighbors have sought closer ties with the United States, which makes no claims to the South China Sea and its land features but has long acted as a guarantor of freedom of the seas and stability in Asia, enabling the region to grow and prosper.
Mr. Obama is under increasing pressure from some regional allies as well as his own military to push back harder against China, and he has begun to do so. A recent example is that a United States destroyer last week sailed near China’s largest man-made island, the third freedom-of-navigation operation in seven months challenging Beijing’s vast claims in the South China Sea.
American officials have long hoped that China would use its position as a rising power to work with the United States to uphold post-World War II international norms, but many officials and experts now see China as determined to write its own rules. How the court ruling is handled will be a critical test both for Mr. Obama and for Xi Jinping, China’s president.
One encouraging note in the Pentagon report is the finding that while China has been willing to tolerate higher levels of tension in pursuit of its maritime claims, it “still seeks to avoid direct and explicit conflict with the United States.” The challenge for all sides is making that aspiration a reality.
Genocide Watch is the Coordinator of Alliance Against Genocide. Founded in 1999, the Alliance is made up of over 50 organizations from around the world and was the first coalition of organizations focused completely on preventing genocide.