Chinese sailors render honors to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus in 2012.

Chinese sailors render honors to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus in 2012. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers

It’s Time to Confront Beijing About the South China Sea

To allow China to continue to expand its role and expectations invites future conflict on a larger scale.

China has continued its aggressive actions in the South China Sea. Events from ramming Vietnamese fishing boats to continued dredging and land reclamation demonstrate aggressive intent, bad faith and disrespect for their regional neighbors. It is clear from these actions that Bejing has no intent on reversing course or even finding a middle-ground, arbitrated approach to their territorial claims in the South China Sea. The United States, in cooperation with its allies and partners in the Western Pacific, needs to step up its response.

Lets start with some facts. China’s territorial claims, based upon a 1947 map showing nine dashed lines encircling the South China Sea, has no legitimate basis in fact. China has never been a seagoing nation. Its one brief attempt at being a maritime power, the voyages of the Ming Dynasty court eunuch Cheng Ho, lasted just 28 years and ended 650 years ago. The nine-dashed line itself was advanced by the Republic of China government, which is currently based on the island of Taiwan, following the defeat of Japan in an attempt to claim some of Japan’s wartime conquests for China. These claims were not recognized by the international community then or now; depending as they do on low-lying sandbars that are only exposed during low tides, the claims have no basis in international law. Nor do attempts by China to enlarge these sandbars with dredged-up material conform with international law, as precedent does not allow nations to “create” sovereign territory or to claim water farther than 12 nautical miles off sovereign soil. The ability of a nation to claim the open ocean has been denied by international law since 1609, when the Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius laid down the tenants of free navigation in his book “The Free Sea,” writing that the sea was the “common property of all.”

It is becoming increasingly clear why China desires to establish its hold over the islands and water in question. Despite arguments about energy and food supplies that may lay in abundance below the waters of the South China Sea, Beijing’s actions make increasingly clear that it seeks control for its own military advantage and to establish dominance over the other nations in the region. From Malaysia to Taiwan and from the Philippines to Vietnam, the message has been consistent and clear: submit to China’s demands or face the consequences. Previous attempts to disguise their ambitions under an external show of a “peaceful rise” have ended. This is now a bare attempt at power and regional domination, but why now?

China’s time to regain its position as a Great Power has nearly run out. Its dramatic economic slowdown, its rapidly aging population, and the quickening flight of capital by Communist Party elites all suggest that the jig is up and everyone in China’s ruling class knows it. President Xi Jinping’s attempts to fan the flames of nationalism by holding a parade celebrating China’s victory over Japan 70 years ago, a victory that the Chinese Communist Party, unlike the government on neighboring Taiwan, has no legitimate claim to.

It’s time for the United States to puncture the balloon of Chinese arrogance. It should immediately dispatch an American warship, perhaps one of our advanced Aegis destroyers, to pass within 12 nautical miles of one or all of China’s man-made islands to demonstrate in an unambiguous fashion that they are not now, nor ever will be, sovereign Chinese territory. These destroyers are well armed, have excellent sea keeping abilities, and are capable of “shouldering” vessels that attempt to ram or force them to change course. The U.S. Navy should come ready to “get up in their grill.”

This event need not occur while Xi is visiting the United States. Unlike China, which continuously attempts to embarrass U.S. officials while they are visiting China by rolling out new capabilities, we need not stoop to such measures while their president is here. The freedom of navigation demonstrations should occur before his arrival, providing the President with an opportunity to emphasize that free trade and free navigation are considered core national interests by the United States. Xi can then respond, or decide perhaps to not visit at all and forgo the benefits of U.S. goodwill. To be clear, rules of engagement should be issued to the ship’s commanding officers, but the strategic goal must be the defense of 400 years of legal precedent covering the free seas. To allow China to continue to expand its role and expectations in the South China Sea invites future conflict on a larger scale.