As China increases its presence in the South China Sea by building islands that literally expand its territory, the Obama administration’s avowed and widely hailed “pivot to Asia” is degenerating into a genuflection to Beijing.
In short order, the Chinese regime has turned reefs in the Spratly Islands, over which several Asian nations claim sovereignty, into 2900 acres of islands that it can use for military purposes. Motorized artillery pieces have already been observed on one of the islands, and China’s airstrip on one reef dwarfs those operated by other countries in the island group.
Escalating its bid for hegemony of the Sea, Beijing has flaunted international law by warning other countries that they must obtain the regime’s permission before flying or sailing within twelve nautical miles of the reclaimed islands. At the same time, it is dramatically increasing its anti-access/anti-denial (A2/AD) forces and other naval capabilities. It already has 1500 short-range ballistic missiles positioned on the mainland and aimed at our nation’s close ally Taiwan, to which the United States is committed to provide defensive aid under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which the Obama administration has repeatedly identified as an “important security and economic partner,” and which I have supported as a senator and as counselor for Taiwan in the private sector. In addition to its short-range and anti-ship missiles, Beijing has more than 60 submarines and intends to add 20 more to its fleet within the next five years. By 2023, it is expected to acquire more than 40,000 stealthy unmanned air vehicles, many of which will feature precision-strike capability.
The United States’ national interest in addressing this dangerously gross militarization is obvious. In addition to the growing menace to Taiwan, Beijing is posing a direct threat to the U.S. Navy and commercial shipping. The South China Sea carries 30 percent of the world’s annual maritime trade, including $1.2 trillion in ship-borne trade bound for the United States.
Last month, the Department of Defense reported that Beijing is undertaking a “steady progression of small, incremental steps to increase its effective control over disputed areas.” China’s strategy is “incremental” in order to “avoid escalation to military conflict,” a goal that the United States itself seems to share to the point of effectively denying its interests in free and open seas; preserving the democracy and freedom of Taiwan; and preventing Beijing from further destabilization of and growing dominance over the region. As is too often the case, the administration has been big on rhetoric, but short on action. Its thus-far feeble response has been largely limited to pledging an increased number of military and humanitarian drills in the Asia-Pacific and committing to assign more of its existing worldwide naval fleet to patrols and homeports in the region.
Much stronger measures are required. In the wake of Chinese President Xi’s exchange of talking points in Washington last week, President Obama should now challenge him at long last to clarify China’s claims and intentions regarding the Sea. At the same time, he should initiate multilateral talks to resolve the crisis. If Beijing again refuses to participate, President Obama should proceed without it and prepare publicly to provide additional armaments to Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia as necessary.
The United States should also implement a key element of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s recent South China Sea Peace Initiative, which the State Department has praised for its “call on claimants to exercise restraint, to refrain from unilateral actions that could escalate tensions, and to respect international law” — that is, precisely what Beijing is not doing. Great merit lies in the plan’s recognition of the importance of economic interests in resolving the crisis — specifically in Ma’s observation that while “sovereignty cannot be divided, resources can be shared.” In addition to hosting 10 percent of global fisheries production, the Sea are home to an estimated 11 billion barrels and 190 trillion cubic feet of oil and natural gas reserves. The Administration should steer multilateral talks to launch exploration of seabed resources without prejudicing sovereignty claims.
As I wrote in these pages last January, it should also fulfill President George W. Bush’s 14-year-old commitment to provide Taiwan with eight diesel-electric submarines. More broadly, the administration should be having more ships built instead of shuffling naval deployments and slashing our military budget in general. For its part, Congress should exercise oversight to ensure that our Navy is large enough to counter China’s vastly improving A2/AD forces while meeting its responsibilities elsewhere in our troubled world. Lastly, I urge the presidential candidates from both parties to advocate stronger policies not only to address the Chinese threat, but also to exercise greater U.S. leadership on a global basis.
• Bob Dole, Kansas Republican, is a former Senate Majority Leader and was the 1996 Republican nominee for president. Note: This material is distributed by Bob Dole (registered under Alston & Bird LLP) on behalf of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. Additional information is available at the Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.