At a family dinner this week, the conversation turned first from domestic politics to fear and then to the Mid-East. I suddenly felt very much in the minority. We were becoming myopic in our view of the world’s present and potential disasters. As much as I tried to steer the conversation from Mid-East to the West and Asia, I was rebuffed on all sides. We have such an emotional and intellectual investment in the Mid-East that we are losing sight of a very dangerous geographic confrontation that is quietly playing itself out on the far side of the Pacific Ocean and what may morph into a dangerous confrontation in that part of the world.
The most recent news that bombards us from ISIS is their latest video released online touting a shari’a school that attempts to instill in its very young pupils the desire of martyrdom—“the cubs of the Caliphate” . The voice-over video announces that it is these children who will be the vanguard of a new army who will conquer Rome, Jerusalem, and Baghdad among other major cities.
It is not easy, after so many years of focus, to move away from those types of threats and focus on a different part of the world, but we must or suffer the consequences. We have done just that in the past. Let us not repeat that error again.
If you look at your map and find the southern tip of Japan, the Philippine Islands is to the south-east, then move in a circular clock-wise direction to Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia and finally China you will notice these nations form a large oblong circle, some miles 1,400,000 square miles creating the South China Sea (SCS). This Sea, and its mostly uninhabited islands, have been subject to competing claims of sovereignty for decades by several countries for a number of strategic reasons. Among them: one-third of the worlds shipping ply thru its water, and there are huge oil and gas reserves in its sea beds.
If you google “China” the first thing that will pop-up is that there is a new home buying boom and all the banks in China are in hot pursuit of those new customers. What does not receive the attention it deserves is that China is once again creating new islands out of old coral reefs. That is not a typo– these man-made large islands, sitting upon coral reef, are not being advertised as the new tropical island tourist attraction for those tired of the Caribbean. China is building a major, powerful war machine far from its mainland to control that part of the world.
As we passively watched Europe in 1938, 39 and 40, we are once again almost passively watching the growth of a powerful armed threat against the sovereignty of a number of nations in the South Pacific that will have a direct impact on the economics of world trade and security. If nothing else, remember that one third of the world’s commerce flows thru this area.
Thanks to a series of excellent articles including one by Steve Mollman, we gain additional insight into the present military importance of this area, which we are ignoring at our peril. In the past, I wrote about the Spratly Islands in the SCS, where China, through massive dredging of more than 2,000 acres at three main reefs (reefs!), created a substantial military base of operation. This military complex has sea port facilities, military buildings, and multiple high density airstrips. China then unilaterally announced that it had indisputable sovereignty over the reef/islands and its nearby waters—12 nautical miles. All this announced in clear violation of settled international maritime law. And then the leaders in Beijing angrily called the world’s arbitration court process a “farce” for rejecting its claim.
To the north west of the Spratly Islands and about 200 miles from the coast of Vietnam lies the Paracel Islands. Here too, the Chinese have claimed ownership of disputed territory and then, thru the massive reclamation by dredging, have greatly expanding their acreage. On several of these islands, intelligence photos reveal the building of military garrisons, radar domes, and on one of the islands in the group, a concrete manufacturing plant with an enlarged sea port with reinforced seawalls. What appears to be developing along with new island acquisition, which I will note in the next paragraph, is that an anti-submarine(ASW) helicopter base of operation is being developed that could morph into an enormous ability for massive surveillance without the necessity of supply and surveillance support from main land China.
How that vast area is quickly moving under controlled by China is evidenced by their present illegal adventures to annex the Scarborough Shoal, a large coral atoll with a reef-rimmed lagoon. It encompasses 58 square miles and lies less than 150 miles from the Philippine coast. If you take that next look at the map of the South Asia Sea you will notice that these three sets of islands (the Spratly Island and Scarborough Shoal and the Paracel Islands) form a formidable strategic triangle that covers just under a million and half square miles and provides China with a superior air dense identification zone. In effect, China controls the air space over this international and vital portion of the world—where more than five trillion dollars’ worth of trade pies its waters each year and is the main passage for Mid-East oil to Japan and South Korea.
China has set a rapid and high urgency agenda to build a sophisticated naval deployment with supporting structures in the South Asia Sea. They are accomplishing this with sophisticated radar equipment, ASW anti-submarine strength facilities, deep water ports, military grade runways, along with building additional aircraft carriers to increase its naval strength with a support fleet all superimposed upon illegal claims of maritime sovereignty. Within the last week, elements of the Chinese and Russian navies concluded an eight day joint war games exercise in the SCS. And today, amid increased tensions over the disputed territories, Beijing announced it is preparing to launch stealthy UAVs to protect and map the contested islands.
It is clear from all of China’s activities, aside from the naval war games with Russia, that there can be no question regarding its strong commitment to its ever increasing territorial claims and the accelerated building of its armed/naval strength and presence. This has caused both military and diplomatic confrontations with the United States in what a former Japanese admiral has called a “game changer.” We must call China’s behavior what it is –unadorned overt military aggression. We must draw a real line in the sand that will be enforced — not by name calling but by concrete military intervention and economic sanctions. Our message must be conveyed in clear and unambiguous terms to China and the international community.
Silence and inaction is an act of capitulation to an international bully and can only lead to damaging both our economic and direct security interests. With China, from a reef to an island in less than a year, is reality. What next?