China’s determined efforts over the past two decades to seize control of almost the entire South China Sea is nothing short of classic aggressive imperialism. What’s remarkable is that it has been done without basically firing a shot, using the Chinese People’s Liberation Army concept of “military soft power.” This tactic is designed to defeat the enemy without fighting. Make no mistake: China views the United States as the enemy. Under President Obama’s strategy to fundamentally transform America, our country doesn’t confront our enemies, it embraces them. China has the perfect enemy.
When the United States withdrew its forces from the Philippines in 1992, this created a vacuum, which presented China with an unprecedented opportunity to expand its influence and territorial objectives. In 1993, China announced its illegal claims to almost the entire South China Sea as part of its territorial waters. The claim is based on China’s questionable Nine-Dash Line maritime claim and includes large sea areas of internationally recognized economic zones belonging to Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Japan.
There is no question that what China has accomplished over the past two decades — both economically and militarily — has been remarkable. When I took the first U.S. Navy Task Force back to mainland China on Nov. 3, 1986, 37 years after the Communists seized power in 1949, its navy was nothing more than a coastal navy, and not a threat to anyone. However, since then, China — with a double-digit increase in its military budget — has dramatically modernized its military forces and specifically built a navy designed to confront the U.S. Navy. More recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping is in the process of transforming China’s military force’s mission from just a defensive posture and regional power to one that will potentially be capable of challenging the United States globally.
As we have seen, China has instituted an aggressive reclamation program, creating man-made islands out of shallow reefs and inlets to reinforce its South China Sea claims. Since 2014, China has reclaimed more than 3,200 acres. Airfields and other permanent facilities have been built on these islands. The islands, in effect, have become stationary aircraft carriers. China has already deployed significant air, naval and missile forces to its newly reclaimed stationary carriers.
It should be noted that while China is a signatory to the United Nation’s Law of the Sea Treaty, it has stated that any sea area it “unilaterally” claims as its territorial waters is excluded from arbitration and will not be submitted to any treaty tribunal for resolution. However, the Philippines challenged China’s claims over the South China Sea in 2013 by stating that the Nine-Dash Line maritime zone is illegal because it violates the 2006 U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty that sets out exclusive zones and territorial waters. China refused to participate in the challenge based on their previous unilateral declarations and its questionable claims that go back to the Ming Dynasty.
Nonetheless, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is about to issue a ruling, which is anticipated to be unfavorable to China. The Chinese ambassador to the Netherlands, Wu Ken, stated, “China will not accept an invalid arbitral award. Abuses of international law and its hegemonic mentality have no place in any SCS dispute!” This is typical Chinese information warfare.
In a separate action, according to a June 1 article in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, China appears ready to impose air defense identification zones on the South China Sea — zones similar to the one they have in the East China Sea. One source said the timing of any declaration would depend on security conditions in the region, particularly the U.S. military presence, operations and diplomatic ties with regional countries (read: Vietnam). Here we have the classic case of China, the aggressor, presenting itself as the “victim” because the U.S. military is exercising its traditional “freedom of navigation and right of innocent passage” under recognized international law. China has chosen to view these legitimate operations as a challenge to China’s illegal claims in the region and, therefore, we are forcing China to declare air defense identification zones to protect its sovereignty. What nonsense.
Senior Chinese and U.S. officials are meeting this week in Beijing for the annual strategic and economic conference. As previously indicated, embracing one’s enemy to resolve serious strategic issues has never worked with a totalitarian regime, and it certainly will not work with China. The Obama administration’s responses to China’s aggression in the South China Sea have been weak and ineffective.
When China became displeased with U.S. actions, they moved quickly to show their displeasure by cancelling a recent carrier port visit to Hong Kong. We need to do the same. During the Beijing conference, we need to inform the Chinese that they have been disinvited to participate in upcoming June-July bi-annual Rim of the Pacific Exercise exercise. We should state in clear, unmistakable terms that this decision is based on their bullying of regional countries by building their questionable islands, as well as on their unprofessional action against our forces operating peacefully in the South China Sea. Having the Chinese participate in this exercise for our friends and allies has never made any sense. It provides the Chinese up-close intelligence-gathering opportunities to electronically fingerprint all our weapons systems, our tactics and operations.
To accompany our action, we should encourage the Philippines to give notice of impending immigration enforcement action against Chinese personnel and vessels. Further, U.S. and other allies should provide support to back up the Philippine action. Nothing less than bold action will stop Chinese aggression.
• James A. Lyons, a U.S. Navy retired admiral, was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.