With most of the world’s attention focused on the realignment of the “Arab Spring,” Islamists and the latest Hamas-Israeli conflict, China continues its aggressive island imperialism in both the South China and East China seas with its illegal territorial claims. The confrontational incidents forced by China’s bullying tactics on our regional allies — most recently, Japan over the Senkaku Islands and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal — are clearly unacceptable.
There are multiple territorial claims throughout the East China and South China seas. This is a strategic maritime area transited by more than half of the world’s total shipping trade. While there is a growing competition for the natural resources near the contested islands, these confrontations must be viewed in a broader context involving China’s ultimate objective: As part of its anti-access and area-denial strategy, China wants to replace the United States as the dominant power in the Western Pacific.
China wants hegemony over the first island chain, which includes Taiwan and Okinawa, and eventually the second island chain, which includes Guam. As part of a phased plan, China is trying first to legitimize its sovereignty claims based on questionable ventures by Chinese explorers almost 2,000 years ago. In the case of the Senkaku Islands, under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan was granted both jurisdiction and administration rights over those islands.
Scarborough Shoal, a rock formation just 140 nautical miles from the Philippines’ main island of Luzon, is well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone as recognized by international law. It should be noted that the shoal is 750 nautical miles from mainland China. In another embarrassing incident, the Chinese frigate Dongguan ran aground in the disputed Half Moon Shoal, which sits astride a key strategic maritime trench about 70 nautical miles from the Philippines’ Palawan province. The Dongguan previously had fired on Philippine fishing boats in the area.
China also has built facilities in the Philippines’ Mischief Reef in violation of international norms. The Philippines has tried to confront China’s illegal actions, but with basically no naval or air force capability, its attempts to force China out or negotiate with Beijing have been futile. China ignored Taiwan’s call in September for a code of conduct to manage island disputes, as for a decade it has rebuffed efforts by Southeast Asian states to arrange such a code to prevent island conflicts in that region.
The United States has stated on numerous occasions its long-held position that it “doesn’t take sides in territorial disputes” but that it has an interest in maintaining “freedom of navigation” in critical shipping lanes in both the East China and South China seas. The United States has stated in various regional forums that China should have its contested claims adjudicated in an international tribunal versus bilateral negotiations. China has rejected this approach. At the Southeast Asian Nations conference in Cambodia in November, President Obama again stated support for a proposed multilateral approach to resolve these disputes. China was not impressed.
If China tries to use its newly expanded military force capability to impose its claims over disputed territories, that clearly should be resisted. The United States and its allies need to face the fact that China is not going away. We should anticipate more forced confrontational incidents by China. The Asian giant has just announced that as of Jan. 1, it intends to stop and board vessels “illegally” in the South China Sea without their permission. Obviously, this declaration is unacceptable and must be resisted strongly, as it violates freedom of navigation, a core principle of international law.
Japan will eventually have little choice but to employ both its naval and air force resources to protect its sovereign claim to the Senkakus. It should reposition those forces in coordination with the United States so that it can respond immediately to future Chinese threats.
Since the Philippines also is an ally, the United States should provide it with recognized war-fighting capability able to deter China’s aggressive tactics in the near term. Accordingly, we should immediately make a no-cost lease of an FFG-7 frigate with modern weapons, as well as a squadron of F-16 fighters so the Philippines will have some capability to stand up to China’s bullying tactics. The United States needs to make more deployments into these disputed territorial areas in support of our allies by exercising our freedom of transit rights.
Furthermore, the United States needs to make it very clear to China that if it provokes hostilities with Japan or the Philippines with their aggressive bullying tactics, then our respective mutual defense treaties will be activated. A shot must be fired across China’s bow.
Retired Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.