The media is having a clickworthy headline battle over the “showdown” in the South China Sea. It started when a United States destroyer passed unimpeded along a route through international waters which took them close to artificial platforms which the Chinese have been constructing on the Spratly Islands. (Calling these piles of rocks on top of some reefs “islands” is rather generous in terms of language, but there you are.) While there is certainly some diplomatic tension between Beijing and Washington at the moment it likely isn’t as dire as some are painting it to be. For one example, I’ve seen a number of observers attributing an inflammatory quote highlighted in the Guardian to the Chinese government: Beijing ‘not frightened to fight a war’ after US move. The quote actually came from the Global Times, which is known for prizing hype over investigative journalism, but it’s still worth a look.
“In [the] face of the US harassment, Beijing should deal with Washington tactfully and prepare for the worst,” the newspaper argued in an editorial on Wednesday.
“This can convince the White House that China, despite its unwillingness, is not frightened to fight a war with the US in the region, and is determined to safeguard its national interests and dignity.”
What’s really going on here is a local dispute over these isolated chunks of reef between China, the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam. It’s not a new argument either, but rather one which has been going on for most of the 20th century. (You can read a bit of history on the back and forth which has taken place in this CNN study.) China wants to claim the area as their own turf, along with the surrounding seas, and they’ve been “occupying” bits of it since the 80s. Of course, those are actually international waters, even if they put up some additional airstrips. I say “additional” because several of the nations I listed above have built, maintained or abandoned small airfields on those reefs since World War 2. China is the powerhouse in the region these days so I’m sure they enjoy flexing their muscles in front of their neighbors. Further, that stretch of ocean is in China’s economic area of interest so these moves probably shouldn’t be all that shocking.
But since the United States is treating the area as international waters, what precisely are the doomsayers expecting to happen? We’ve already shown that we can sail past there on our way to and from our normal duties in the region. In order for this to blow up (literally) into something more than international emails of protest and inflammatory newspaper editorials, somebody would have to start shooting. Do you honestly see that happening? The United States has absolutely no interest in engaging in a naval battle with China, and what does China stand to gain as long as their construction proceeds apace? Let’s not forget that we’ve got one heck of an insurance policy hanging over their heads. The Chinese are currently holding on to approximately one and a half trillion dollars in U.S. debt. (That’s “trillion” with a T, folks.) People you go to war with don’t generally worry about making their mortgage payments to you on time.
China no doubt sees some value in expanding their reef born platforms and reminding everyone that they are the boss in the region. It’s also a useful way for the Chinese government to build up a sense of nationalism among their citizens while their economy is reeling back home. But if you’re waiting for a shooting match to start between China and the United States you may not want to hold your breath. For our part, aren’t we in enough shooting wars at the moment? Do you really want to fire one up with China? If anyone has a suggestion as to how we’re supposed to stop China from building on those reefs without using military force I’m all ears.