U.S. military vessels perform drills on the South China Sea in October 2016.
Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Will Gaskill, courtesy Naval Surface Warriors.
Suppose someone in Washington D.C. drew a line on a map extending from Key West, Florida, to Brownsville, Texas, and declared that the entire Gulf of Mexico north of that line is American territorial waters. Which other nations would respect that decision?
If you answered “none,” you are probably correct. I say “probably” rather than “certainly” because it’s possible Canada would be willing to give us our claim to the Gulf in return for recognition of its claims in Arctic waterways that we consider international. But I doubt even the Canadians could turn a blind eye to such an overreaching claim by a great power.
Of course, we wouldn’t make such a claim – but China would. In fact, it has. This is what the dispute in the South China Sea is all about.
It hardly comes as a surprise that China has been moving anti-aircraft and anti-cruise-missile military hardware onto the artificial islands it has built on reefs claimed by multiple nations, far from the Chinese mainland or any of its historic habitations. Prior promises from Beijing that the outposts would not be militarized were never worth taking seriously. Even if the point of China’s artificial island-building is to press economic rather than military advantages, the claim itself is so outrageous that it can only be sustained by brute military force. China has already lost one international tribunal ruling on the matter, and Beijing hardly blinked.
The principal victims of China’s bullying behavior to date have been Filipino fishermen who have been regularly harassed and, in some cases, prevented from plying their trade in their historic fishing grounds, to the benefit of counterparts from China who are permitted greater access. In fact, it was the Philippines that brought the case against China’s claim before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hauge, which led to the ruling against China’s sovereignty claims this summer.
However, between Manila’s choice to bring the case and the court’s subsequent ruling, power changed hands in that country. Current President Rodrigo Duterte demonstrated no interest in pressing the claim after the international court’s decision; to the contrary, Duterte seemed eager to engage with China. His stance culminated in a visit to China in October, during which Duterte announced that his country had “realigned” itself with China – and away from the United States – as the two countries discussed the South China Sea dispute.
It is in this context that the news arrived earlier this month that satellite images revealed “significant” Chinese military defenses on its artificial islands in disputed waters. China’s Defense Ministry emphasized in a statement that any construction on the reefs was principally meant for civil use, with the military facilities for “defense and self-defense,” The Wall Street Journal reported. The current systems appear to have sharply limited ranges, though an unnamed senior military official told the Journal that eventually they could be used to support larger, more serious surface-to-air missiles.
Although Taiwan has grabbed the headlines during Donald Trump’s transition, the South China Sea dispute is liable to provide the first test of how far Trump is prepared to go to defend – or upend – the status quo in the western Pacific.
The United States has a long and complex history in the Philippines. The relationship is often described as one of “allies,” but that’s not quite right. We were the last in a line of foreign colonizers that included Spain (from whom we seized control of the archipelago in the Spanish-American War), us, Japan – which conquered the Philippines soon after Pearl Harbor – and us again, until the country achieved independence on July 4, 1946. The date of Philippines Independence Day was not a coincidence.
Clark Air Base and the naval installation at Subic Bay were our largest overseas military installations in the Vietnam War era. We had a close working relationship with local strongman Ferdinand Marcos until he was finally deposed. President Corazon Aquino, whose husband Benigno was assassinated on Marcos’ orders, eventually maneuvered for the bases’ closing in 1992. Lately we have gained limited access but little control, and we remain subject to removal at any time.
The Obama administration has taken a neutral position on the South China Sea dispute between China, the Philippines and other powers, which is ultimately the correct one. Given our uneven history with the Philippines, it makes no sense to put American service members’ lives at risk to defend Filipino fishermen’s rights.
We do, however, have a vital strategic interest in ensuring that the region’s shipping lanes remain open to all traffic, and toward that end we routinely flout China’s claims of control by sending our ships and planes wherever we want them to go in the region. Those anti-cruise-missile emplacements weren’t installed because the Red Army thinks it might someday need to use them against fishermen from the Philippines.
For that matter, the Chinese aren’t above a little shoplifting when they can’t think of something cool to give as a holiday gift. Last week, a Chinese warship seized an American underwater survey drone just before the U.S. team was about it retrieve it from the water. A bridge-to-bridge request for the drones return was, reportedly, acknowledged and then ignored. While China ultimately returned the drone, our complicated relationship with the Philippines is not our only problem with China’s aggression, even today.
Filipinos are in the process of discovering that independence, self-determination and security are not all the same. You get the first from a piece of paper; you get the other two from your own strength and the strength of the relationships you forge with relatively friendly partners, while recognizing that each partner’s interests are not identical.
Our most reliable ally in the region is Japan. South Korea is a not-too-close second, and after that the list is short and unimpressive, comprised of genuinely friendly and reliably loyal partners who will put their territory (and adjacent populations) at risk to provide us with bases from which we can defend our mutual interests. Taiwan would eagerly join that list, but that is just the sort of provocation – and maybe the only one – that could convince Beijing that all its military hardware might not be just for show after all.
We will probably end up scaling down our goals and expectations in the region. China’s neighbors will be pretty much on their own to counter Beijing’s aggressive maritime claims. Our red line will be freedom of commercial and military traffic to pass through the area en route to Japan, the Korean peninsula, North America and possibly Taiwan.
Those Filipino fishermen are unlikely to get much in the way of help in their own neighborhood – although they are welcome to fish in international waters in the Gulf of Mexico any time.