A lengthy report in The New York Times late last week described the extent of Chinese atoll reclamation and island-building in the South China Sea, now believed to comprise six separate islands including at least one in territorial waters belonging to the Philippines.
The report began:
As the U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane banked low near Mischief Reef in the South China Sea this month, a Chinese warning crackled on the radio.
“U.S. military aircraft,” came the challenge, delivered in English in a harsh staccato. “You have violated our China sovereignty and infringed on our security and our rights. You need to leave immediately and keep far out.”
Aboard the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, flying in what is widely considered to be international airspace, Lt. Dyanna Coughlin scanned a live camera feed showing the evolution of Mischief Reef.
Five years ago, this was mostly an arc of underwater atoll populated by tropical fish and turtles. Now Mischief Reef, which is off the Philippine coast but controlled by China, has been filled out and turned into a Chinese military base, complete with radar domes, shelters for surface-to-air missiles and a runway long enough for fighter jets. Six other nearby shoals have been similarly transformed by Chinese dredging.
“I mean, this is insane,” Coughlin said. “Look at all that crazy construction.”
A rare visit aboard a U.S. Navy surveillance flight over the South China Sea illustrated how profoundly China has reshaped the security landscape across the region.
The report went onto detail some of what China has built in a short span of years on several of the atolls in and around the Spratly Islands: Long-range radar, electronic warfare systems, barracks, surface-to-air missile sites, command-and-control installations, and military-grade runways.
Scores of ships, including warships, surrounded Mischief Reef on the day of the flight mentioned in the above story. And what’s more, the Chinese aren’t finished: Construction is underway on other atolls.
“In congressional testimony before assuming his new post as head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in May, Adm. Philip Davidson issued a warning about China’s power play in a sea through which roughly one-third of global maritime trade flows,” the Times reported.
“In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” Davidson said.
Analysis: In a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in June, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed that Bejing “cannot lose even one inch of the territory” in the South China Sea. That’s about as plain a warning as one gets: China will defend, militarily, it’s outsized claims in a body of water through which one-third of all global trade passes.
The U.S. would have little difficulty in taking out militarily significant targets on any of the islands in question. But that’s not really the point.
Through the construction of these artificial islands-turned-military bases, China acted brazenly but in a calculated way: When the decision was made to begin dredging sand and building artificial islands, Xi and the Chinese Communist Party calculated that no one in the region, including the United States, would directly challenge the construction.
And of course, as we have now seen, the Chinese calculated correctly. Five years on, the presence of Chinese military installations in locations meant to give Beijing control over the entire body of the South China Sea is complete, and as Adm. Davidson said, there is nothing that will dislodge Beijing “short of war.”
It will likely come to that and here’s why: China, as we’ve said repeatedly, is a revisionist power. Beijing’s objective isn’t to ‘fit into’ the global order but to remake it under Chinese control. To accomplish that objective, China must necessarily challenge the existing global order which is led by the United States.
President Trump and his national security strategy envision China as the United States’ most significant challenger in the short-, mid-, and long-term, and Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea is one reason for that. The region will prove to be the first real test of Beijing’s revisionist intent and the West’s desire to maintain the status quo, which is premised on guaranteeing free and open navigation as well as global peace and stability.
As has happened in the past when revisionist powers rise, we will likely have to engage in war in order to bring about a lasting peace — at least until the next revisionist period.
The problem, as always, is that in today’s world, a global war between great powers can and probably would lead to a nuclear exchange. That said, ignoring China’s aggression isn’t an option, either.
It will take a firm commitment by a U.S.-led alliance to sort of ‘draw a line’ in the waters of the South China Sea that Beijing cannot be permitted to cross, and the sooner the better, given the United States’ technological superiority for the time being. Anything short of a firm commitment will be meaningless to President Xi, who will continue to use Western ambivalence to pursue his revisionist objectives.