By Perry Diaz
With the conclusion of a much-ballyhooed summit meeting between the leaders of the two largest economic superpowers in the 21st century, one would expect that peace would reign in the vast Asia-Pacific region. But this is farthest from the truth because the summit didn’t really accomplish anything but allow U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to pretend that all is sweet and sassy between them. But it soon became apparent that America and China are oceans apart in geopolitical terms just like the way they’re oceans apart in geological terms.
But pretension or not, the fact of the matter is that the South China Sea, which is one of the busiest – if not the busiest – maritime routes in the world, has a sprinkling of hundreds of tiny islands, reefs, and shoals that are claimed by six littoral countries in the region. Mostly concentrated in the Spratly Archipelago, these tiny specks of outcroppings are claimed wholly or partly by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.
The biggest and most aggressive claimant is China who pegs her claim on the “nine-dash line,” a tongue-shaped arbitrary line that runs from east of Taiwan through the Luzon Strait and along the littoral coasts of the Philippines, Borneo, Malaysia, and Vietnam. The area that the nine-dash line encroached represents roughly 85% of the entire South China Sea (SCS), through which $5 trillion in maritime trade pass every year by way of the Strait of Malacca.
A large number of the goods – including oil — that passes through are bound for China and Japan, respectively the second and third largest economies of the world. And together with the United States, whose westernmost territories – Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) – are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Asia-Pacific region is undoubtedly the world’s “economic powerhouse.”
Ideally, if the U.S., China, and Japan could co-exist economically, politically, and militarily, a pacific Asia-Pacific region would serve the best interest of every nation on Earth. Peace can then be achieved. But because of the disputed tiny islands, reef, and shoals in the SCS, the world has never been closer to World War III than it is today. Indeed, what is happening now in the SCS, Middle East, and East Europe has all the recipes of a nuclear war among the great powers: the U.S. against Russia, China, and Iran.
It all began two years ago when China began building artificial islands by dredging sand and rocks from the bottom of the sea and dumping them on reefs and shoals in the Spratly Archipelago, seven of which have been reclaimed to date. And on these artificial islands, China is erecting infrastructure and buildings including runways for military aircraft, deep-water harbors to accommodate large warships, garrisons for troops, and defensive fortifications.
The U.S. did not do anything to stop or warn China about the risks of militarizing the SCS. And the Obama administration’s silence on the matter was interpreted by Beijing that the U.S. was sticking to her position of neutrality on the territorial disputes in the SCS. The Chinese also interpreted Uncle Sam’s silence as a “go signal” to China’s land reclamation projects in the Spratlys.
Recently, America’s military top brass managed to convinced the White House to send American warships to within 12 miles of the artificial islands. Although the White House agreed to notify the Chinese that American warships will be sent to the Spratlys, actual deployment has yet to occur, an indication that Obama might still be trying one more time to convince China to abandon the reclamation projects, diplomatically. China’s response was direct to the point: China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea and warned the U.S. that she would not allow any foreign intrusion into Chinese waters.
Evidently, Xi called Obama’s bluff, which raises the question: Would Obama stay in the game or fold? As any Poker player can tell: A strong hand could lose to a weak hand if the player doesn’t have what it takes – guts — to win. As they say, “No guts, no glory.” Surmise it to say, Obama would be relieved if the game ended in a draw. But with all the reclaimed islands almost complete, it cannot end in a draw. Obama knows that Xi’s hand is weaker than his and Xi knows it, too. Instead, Xi declared that China would go to war to protect her “indisputable sovereignty” over the SCS.
Freedom of navigation
Recently, the Obama administration came out with a strategy. It’s called “freedom of navigation” (FON), which is not really a novel idea because it has been around for more than century when the U.S. became the only maritime superpower on Earth. Since then, there was no country that could match America’s naval power. Not China. Not Russia. America became the “policeman” of the high seas.
The U.S. has formidable fleet of 11 aircraft carriers – more than all the other countries put together. In addition, she has nine helicopter carriers that could also carry a limited number of aircraft. She has 14 nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), each carrying 24 Trident ballistic missiles. Each missile has 3-12 nuclear warheads, which can be aimed to hit several targets. That’s a total of more than 4,000 nuclear warheads that SSBNs can carry. They are the vanguard of America’s second-strike attack in the event China or Russia launches a first-strike attack against the U.S. With that kind of nuclear punch, the U.S. can and should be able to enforce “freedom of navigation” and stop the militarization of the SCS.
But the problem is that Obama is perceived as a “peacenik” who vowed never to send “boots on the ground” to trouble spots in Eastern Europe and the Middle East; thus, emboldening U.S.’s enemies to grab territories, knowing that he wouldn’t stop them. We’ve seen it happen in Georgia, Libya, Crimea, Ukraine, South China Sea, Iraq, and, recently, Syria. Who are next? The Baltic States?
At the annual AUSMIN meeting between American and Australian foreign and defense ministers, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said during a press conference: “Make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea will not be an exception.” His warning was directed at China over her building of militarized artificial islands in the Spratlys. When asked about reports that the U.S. had already decided to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) inside the 12 nautical mile limits, which China claims around the artificial islands, Carter responded: “We will do that in the time and places of our choosing.”
FONOPs are conducted to test China’s reaction by sailing into or flying over territories that China believes she owns without seeking China’s permission. The question is: Would the U.S. conduct FONOPs during Obama’s soon-to-be lame duck presidency? Or would Obama comfort himself by shelving it and let his successor decide whether to conduct FONOPs or not?
Meanwhile, Exercise Malabar 2015 kicked off last October 14 in the Bay of Bengal. It involves naval forces from the U.S., India, and Japan. Part of this year’s Exercise Malabar, which ends on October 19, is to conduct FONOP exercises. In these exercises, carriers, warships, submarines, and aircraft are rehearsing for possible action in the South China Sea that includes challenging China’s sovereignty over the SCS.
While it is presumed that Exercise Malabar takes into account a worst-case scenario; that is, China attacks the intruding forces, one wonders what is the battle plan of the joint U.S.-India-Japan forces against the Chinese?
In the real world, would a FONOP in the South China Sea lead to war? Or would China sue for peace? And this is what’s probably causing Obama sleepless nights as manifested by those circles around his eyes.