China is flexing its maritime muscles again. Last week, the state newspaper People’s Daily darkly warned of “due consequences” if Beijing is challenged in the South China Sea. A few weeks earlier, China’s top military officer called U.S. naval exercises in the South China Sea “inappropriate” and chided America for spending too much on defense.
What’s the beef? It’s simple, really: China is asserting a sovereign claim to virtually all of the South China Sea and the islands in it. That’s not new. But in recent years, Beijing has become more aggressive about it. Since February, China has launched at least nine incursions into Philippines-claimed territory and had several run-ins with the Vietnamese.
China is exploiting the Law of the Sea Treaty to buttress its claims in all its “near seas.” Employing idiosyncratic interpretations of the treaty, to which the U.S. is not a party, it argues that U.S. naval vessels and auxiliary ships should be restricted when operating in what it considers its “exclusive economic zone.”
Indeed, China sees the South China Sea not merely as an exclusive sphere of influence but as sovereign territory. It’s not. Most of it is international waters. Yet my colleague Dean Cheng notes that China’s navy is adapting its strategy to this more ambitious idea. Whereas it used to focus mainly on Taiwan, an additional goal today is to secure waters from Japan’s home islands, along the Ryukyus chain, through Taiwan and the Philippines and to the Strait of Malacca, including the South China Sea.
To control this vast expanse, China would need to hold the U.S. Navy at arm’s length, denying our ships access to international waters. Should China succeed in this, it would make it harder for the U.S. Navy and other forces to come to the aid of Taiwan and our allies Japan and the Philippines if China attacks.
Mr. Cheng reports that, in some Chinese government writings, the oceans surrounding China are considered “blue soil” — in other words, of strategic value comparable to Chinese territory. The Chinese draw lines in international waters the same way fortified lines are drawn on land.
Lest you think that U.S. naval dominance is so overwhelming we have nothing to worry about, think again. Though still strong, U.S. naval power is waning, and the Chinese know it. Secondly, the South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea are much closer to China than to the U.S., and a Chinese naval force concentrated on controlling close-by waters has built-in supply and transportation advantages.
Mr. Cheng says China’s military planners know they cannot challenge the U.S. Navy globally, but they could give it a run for its money closer to its mainland. China is ridding itself of obsolete ships and building a large number of its missile-armed fast attack craft. These vessels carry sea-skimming YJ-82 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, well-suited for attacking U.S. naval vessels. It also is upgrading its destroyers and deploying its first aircraft carrier.
The U.S. cannot let China’s actions jeopardize America’s commitments to its allies or interfere with our right to navigate international waters. China has a right to a Navy and self-defense. It has no right to pretend that it owns the South China Sea.
The main thing standing in the way of Beijing’s aspirations is the U.S. Navy. To ensure freedom of the seas in the Pacific, the Navy needs more resources, not fewer; yet the recent debt ceiling deal threatens to downscale America’s naval forces drastically. Nor can the Navy afford to forgo modernization of surface and subsurface combatants, which will happen if draconian defense cuts continue.
Whether China’s claims to its “near seas” will put us on a collision course is an open question. But Beijing should know that any attempt to change the rules and make that area the maritime equivalent of its exclusive backyard will meet with U.S. resistance.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.