This article is part one of three-part series.
As The People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues its historically unprecedented economic expansion, with its accompanying prestige, she has accordingly sought to expand her hegemony on the world stage.
The centerpiece of this incrementalist program has been an ambitious and destabilizing program of building up airstrips and bases atop disputed reefs within the South China Sea (SCS). A glance at any map shows that the concept of “East Asia” is indelibly defined by the sea — and the SCS is, at its heart, astride access to both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Given its centrality, author Robert Kaplan holds that “the South China Sea is as central to Asia as the Mediterranean is to Europe.” The United States must pay close attention to Beijing’s disturbing program.
Through this massive construction of a “Great Wall of Sand,” or as China herself puts it, creation of “facts on the ground,” the PRC seems intent to create a regional fait accompli of sovereignty over this strategic sea.
This expansion has been disconcerting to China’s many neighbors which reject China’s claims — nations such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore — and see access to this key waterway as central to their own economies.
A watershed event occurred July 12, 2016, when The International Court at The Hague rebuked the PRC, stating China’s claim of sovereignty over the SCS had no legal basis.
This ruling, which drew a strong negative reaction from the Chinese public as well as leadership, seems to have created further intransigence on the issue. Unfortunately, International Law does not have its own police force, so China continues its buildup so far unopposed, save occasional blows between fishermen and the occasional diplomatic complaint. China is confident its “incrementalist” buildup will get them where they want.
The United States and many other nations have watched this budding crisis with increasing concern, given the U.S.’ traditional maritime dominance and the fact that fully 24 percent of world trade flows through the SCS en route the Singapore Straits or points eastbound (Long Beach and beyond).
While China may see SCS as a natural shield to the southern part of their country, China’s neighbors see this land grab as a naked bid for regional control — a potential dagger pointed at their collective throats.
For background, the 1971 United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty (UNLOS) drastically raised the stakes of the significance of ownership of one’s adjacent waters (the U.S. has still not ratified).
The Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) codified therein made ownership of adjacent waters as well as their natural resources (billions of dollars in oil, natural gas, and fisheries) impossible to ignore. Largely dependent on Middle East and Siberian sources of oil, China’s quest for energy, as well as food for its population, has made the SCS the focus of China’s hopes for a more resource-independent future.
Because of China’s core national interest — economic survival and growth, the country has been described as an Uber Realist Power. China’s establishment of a colonial-like presence in Africa (for oil and minerals) and concurrent presence on the Indian Ocean underscores Beijing’s requirement for stability, not foreign-policy virtue as the West conceives it. Unlike America, China lacks a missionary approach to world affairs; it has no ideology or government it seeks to spread.
This dynamic has been one of the driving forces in China’s establishment of an increasingly capable Navy. The expansion of this Navy is but one card that the paranoid Chinese Communist Party has played in its bid to maintain relevance in what it views as its own roiling, capitalistic society. The inherent “creative destruction” of free economies is deeply troubling to the leadership of a One Party State; leadership feels the crush of social pressure that comes with 20 million-plus Chinese entering the work force each year — and having to find jobs for them all.
Knowing their heads are potentially at stake, the Party has consistently been using the nationalist gambit for many years, playing up the (factual) western aggression of the “Unequal Treaties” period (1840-1912), memories of the devastating war with Japan (1937-1945) and creating the Narrative that the Party exists to keep China strong and to resist the humiliations of the past. Now imprisoned within its own narrative, the Party will be unlikely to back down from any SCS-related crisis as it has willingly painted itself into a corner — President Xi Jinping cannot afford a retreat.
Although it bears the name People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN), this impressive force’s resemblance to the Maoist era cadres of “armed Peasantry” is a thing of the past. Much as China has transformed its Air Force and is transforming its Army, the PLAN is at the crux of China’s determination to be a world player second to none.
This buildup of Naval forces by a previous maritime lightweight is not without precedent. History has shown that a determined power can possess a blue water fleet from about 30 years after the laying the first keels. The Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet, the Imperial Japanese Fleet, and the Cold War Soviet Fleet had analogous gestation times to the PLAN. What might be considered an intelligence failure, or at least an embarrassment — was the inability of western experts, as recently as the 1990s, to see that the Chinese would follow a similar development path, given their technical expertise combined with avowed government resolve.
Part two of this article will further describe China’s naval build-up.
Scott Uehlinger is a retired CIA Station Chief and Naval Officer. A Russian speaker, he spent 12 years of his career abroad in the former Soviet Union. In addition to teaching at NYU, he is a frequent Newsmax TV and Fox Business TV commentator, and has a weekly podcast, "the Station Chief," that can be found on iTunes or at www.thestationchief.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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