US Must Challenge China in South China Sea


Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s plea to China and the nations surrounding the South China Sea to end island base building will fall on deaf ears for two reasons. First, it is in their respective interests to create facts on the water to establish sovereignty claims and, second, because no one can stop them. The United States explicitly declares that it takes no position on these activities as they relate to sovereignty claims; Washington simply wants to be free to sail in international waters and fly in international air space.

Unfortunately for Washington and Beijing, these two courses – base-building and freedom of navigation are convergent. Sooner rather than later there will be confrontation. Incidents will follow and perhaps proliferate. The Beijing propaganda machine is already demanding that the United States retreat before its too late, that China is determined to establish a blue water presence in the Western Pacific, which it will inevitably dominate.

The U.S. should accept China’s challenge, the sooner the better. If China truly seeks to dominate the Western Pacific, then the United States should contest Beijing’s claims now while China is quite weak in terms of naval power and while the United States still has the relative advantage. The United States should employ a variant of the “Maritime Strategy” used against the Soviet Union in the eighties against China today. Then, the U.S. Navy sailed into so-called Soviet naval redoubts off Murmansk and the Sea of Okhotsk to deny the Soviet navy sanctuary in any conflict. That is what the U.S. Navy must do today against China. It must be made clear that China’s sea bases offer no advantage at all in time of conflict. Perhaps a gunnery demonstration against an uninhabited and unclaimed atoll would be useful. Perhaps a demonstration of the efficacy of fleet ABM capability should be mounted. The objective would be to make public the weaknesses China seeks to hide by its noisy propaganda.

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A concurrent approach must be to demonstrate that China’s political claims in the East and South China Seas have no historical basis. To date, the United States has failed to contest these claims, leaving the impression that they are true, which they are not. Not one of them. Beijing claims that Taiwan is China’s territory, which it is not. If sovereignty is a function of conquest, colonization, and control, then no mainland Chinese regime has ever in the five thousand year history of China satisfied these conditions as far as Taiwan is concerned. Indeed, China itself was ruled by a variety of non-Chinese regimes for most of its history and the only quasi-serious claim “China” has to Taiwan was made during the Qing Dynasty, which was a Manchu not a Chinese regime. The Qing declared Taiwan an administrative region, but never controlled the island. Its claim lasted a grand total of ten years, from 1885 to 1895 when Japan took possession of the island as part of the settlement of the Sino-Japanese war. It was Japan that conquered, colonized, and controlled Taiwan against the will of its overwhelmingly non-Chinese inhabitants for the subsequent fifty years, until the end of World War II.

Beijing claims that the Senkaku Islands are Chinese, which they are not. If the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyutai, belong to anyone they belong to the former kingdom of Ryukyu, which included the many island groups stretching from the Senakakus to Okinawa. The kingdom existed from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries before being gradually absorbed by the Satsuma clan of Southern Japan. At the same time the kingdom was a tributary to the Ming Dynasty.* Thus, as a dual tributary, the Ryukyuan people sent hundreds of trade and tribute missions to China and Japan, passing the Senkakus on the way to China. Indeed, the Ryukyu Kingdom served as an entrepôt for trade between Japan and China (Ming China prohibited direct trade with Japan). Japan took control of the Senkakus after the Sino-Japanese War in an action unrelated to that conflict.

The People’s Republic of China, in fact, acknowledged that the Senkakus were Japanese until relatively recently. After WWII the United States administered the Senkakus, Okinawa and other formerly Japanese-controlled islands, as part of the peace treaty with Japan. It was only in 1968, when the United States initiated discussions with Japan about returning these islands to Japan that Beijing saw an opportunity to insert a claim. The true, political significance of the Chinese move lies more as a challenge to the U.S. presence in the Western Pacific because the islands still come under the legal purview of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which commits Washington to defend them as Japanese territory.

The Paracel Islands off the Vietnamese coast are another case of uncertain provenance, none of it Chinese. It was France that annexed the islands as part of their Indochinese colony and the Japanese who took over from France during WWII. China came late to this party, when the Chinese Communists seized the largest of the islands, Woody Island, in 1950 and took the rest in January 1974 when Vietnam was divided, at war, and unable to resist.

The Paracels lie relatively close to Hainan Island and so a dispute with Vietnam is understandable, even if not justified. But the Spratlys, a conglomeration of a multitude of islets, reefs, inlets, and shoals, lies over a thousand miles from Chinese territory. China’s actions here are a brazen grab of territory, which must not be accepted. If China is allowed to seize territory a thousand miles from its own country, what country is secure?

China acts because the only power able to prevent such action, the United States, does nothing. Washington should contest China’s claims, both physically and historically. At the very least, Washington should challenge the historical basis for China’s myriad claims to demonstrate that, on the historical record, China is a paper tiger.

Richard C. Thornton is Professor of History and International Affairs at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

*Correction: an earlier version of this article referred to the Ming Dynasty as non-Chinese, this is inaccurate and the reference has been removed.

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