While the media is currently consumed with North Korea, the Russian/Trump fiasco, and ISIS, a new silent issue is arising in the Far East. With all these pressing issues coupled with the new approach to foreign policy by the Trump Administration , China appears to have a window of opportunity to further solidify its burgeoning strategic control of the South China Sea.
This fall the Chinese Politburo will decide if President Xi will serve another term as the president. As the world’s attention is fixated at more pressing issues, China will continue with its pragmatic policy of incremental encroachment. Rather than pouncing all at once, only China could in Tzuian patience bide its time to eventually wrest total control of the area. The Chinese agenda is progressed one step at a time rather than impetuously at once. Now as the US and Russia attempt to clear up their issues and the regional Asian nations fraught in the North Korean quandary, China will begin to finalize its control of the region.
By now, all the pundits and outlets have explained the importance of the sea from control of the vital Malacca Straits, oil and gas reserves under the sea, maritime fishing, strategic positioning, and securing a large chunk of the worlds shipping lanes. The world of today is not what it was a decade ago. The western world is divided in their aspirations for themselves. Britain is freeing itself from what it has perceived as the EU’s yoke on its self-determination. The EU is still reeling from the divisions arising as well as the economic malaise it’s going through and the refugee crisis. Russia is still trying to determine its position in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and the Trump administration. The US is not only caught up in the North Korean debacle but in the battle against ISIS in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran, another potential surge in Afghanistan, as well as mired in its own controversy regarding Trump, Russia and the elections. With so many diversions, the Chinese tentacles have been growing around the world but what it covets most is the sea in its backyard. Wresting control of the sea will not only give it a long desired symbolic victory but allow China to finally secure hegemony in the region and be able to control its destiny in the area.
Chinese history provides some insight to its motivations. The Chinese are implementing a doctrine similar to the Monroe Doctrine carried out in the 19th century by the US. The Chinese Monroe Doctrine was borne out of this fear to secure its borders due to regional and historical dynamics. Between the Century of Humiliation, a superpower neighbor who went from ally to antagonist and seeing the stable bipolar global system end with a sole global hegemon that has essentially surrounded China all along its eastern coast can lend some understanding behind its fears. For China, to redeem the dishonor it endured at the hand of the Western Powers more than a century ago and ensure it is able to determine her own future trajectory, it needs to not only win back Taiwan but control most of the South China Sea. The situation is akin to Russia or China being the dominant power in the Gulf of Mexico, something the US will not be too please with.
Unlike the North Koreans or ISIS, China will not create attention in a gaudy or loud manner by sending its forces en masse to win control of the sea but rather to continue its incremental control through building artificial islands, sending bases on uninhabited atolls, exercising its economic leverage on the regional nations not to pursue activities within their economic exclusive zones, etc. China is fully cognizant that an all-out escalation will only be detrimental to its long term goals due to sanctions and other punitive actions the world can take against it.
The US has only a few options to help curb this slowly but expanding Chinese appetite to secure its claim to the sea:
Develop ASEAN into the Pacific NATO – Such a transformation will allow the US to secure a new military alliance in the region to help contain China but also such a move will bring with it large escalation in tensions as well as sparking a regional conflict.
South China Sea Summit – A diplomatic approach is to bring all regional participants in the conflict to air their grievances and reach a peace accord that will amenable to all parties. Yet, the possibility of such a deal is highly unlikely.
Recognition of Chinese Regional Hegemony – While the US is still the unrivalled military superpower in the world, the Chinese ascent to challenge the status quo is not too far behind at least from a regional aspect. China wants to be respected as equals at the end of the day, US acceptance of such a status can help bring China to more amenable discussions rather than its current approach.
US-Russian Alliance – Despite all the fallout from the 2016 presidential elections, such a military alliance or cooperation has long term significance for Russia, whose territories east of the Ural Mountains appear to be at risk to growing Chinese influence. A stagnating Russian population coupled with a sparsely populated region that is rich in natural resources China is coveting sets up a long-term recipe of disaster for Russia. As China strengthens, its “claims” to the area can become more than just murmurs.
China will continue to fly under the radar and exercise its incremental policy as the world wrestles with more pressing issues. Thanks to thousands of years of Chinese civilization, it has learned to fine tune the ability to influence and win control in the a subtle manner. The Trump Administration should not allow day to day firefighting transform the administration to become myopic but rather retain some aspects of foresight into long-term sustainment of American interests globally.