American policymakers have yet to acknowledge that China’s increasingly belligerent Communist Party has become incurably anti-American, but we’re seeing that fact confirmed right now in bold relief.
On Tuesday, a panel convened by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague will render its decision in Republic of the Philippines vs. People’s Republic of China, which will determine the legal status of a handful of tiny islands and outcroppings in the South China Sea.
The United States is not a party to the case, but Washington has become in recent weeks the target of Beijing’s relentless barrage of criticism about it, and Sino-U.S. ties are likely to feel the impact, perhaps for a generation.
Beijing’s official maps enclose about 85 percent of the South China Sea with nine or, in some cases, ten dashes. Chinese officials have never defined the extent of the claim except to declare that all the islands, atolls, shoals, rocks, reefs, and other features inside the dotted boundary belong to China.
Five other nations—Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam—claim features inside the “cow’s tongue,” as the area defined by the dashes is called. Moreover, the tongue includes waters that are part of Indonesia’s “exclusive economic zone,” the band of sea between 12 and 200 nautical miles from a country’s shoreline.
Just about every analyst outside China expects the decision to go the way of Manila on most of the issues. The administration of then-President Benigno Aquino Jr. brought the action in 2013 as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS as the global pact is known. China’s claims are expansive, covering features far from its shores and close to those of others, and cannot be justified under either customary international law or UNCLOS.
China ratified the pact in 1996, at the time agreeing to litigate certain disputes over its interpretation, but Beijing is already throwing a fit over the Philippines case. The Chinese do not believe the tribunal has any jurisdiction to hear the matter, but the panel last October decided it would rule on seven of the 15 questions raised by Manila. China has not participated in the hearing of the substantive issues.
Beijing in the past week has issued comments criticizing every party involved in the case, but its most vituperative and hostile words have been saved for a country that has not ratified UNCLOS and has no territorial claims in Asia.
“Senior U.S. officials have stirred up the South China Sea issue on all kinds of occasions,” accused People’s Daily in a July 6 editorial. Those officials, said the self-described mouthpiece of the Communist Party, “have strongly pushed the Philippines and other counties to stand up and make trouble for China.”
So in China’s telling, there would never have been any dispute had it not been for Washington. The U.S. “uses the South China Sea as a lever to realize its own strategic objectives. This has led to the ever-increasing tension in the South China Sea.”
The anti-U.S. message has now become part of an international public relations campaign.
“More and more in China, people believe that the U.S. is behind those countries who are undermining China’s interests,” said Fu Ying, a former diplomat and now chairwoman of the National People’s Congress foreign affairs committee, speaking in London at Chatham House on the same day as the People’s Daily editorial. She and others have been traveling the world in recent weeks spreading the anti-U.S. message.
And threats have been part of the campaign. “Even though China cannot keep up with the U.S. militarily in the short-term, it should be able to let the U.S. pay a cost it cannot stand if it intervenes in the South China Sea dispute by force,” warned the Global Times on Tuesday.
China’s defenders say the antagonistic words were not Beijing’s—Global Times, though controlled by People’s Daily, is not considered “official”—yet the parent publication said much the same thing Wednesday in its editorial. “Once someone goes too far, they have to pay the price,” China’s most authoritative publication said, referring to the U.S. after warning it of Beijing’s “bottom line.” And that bottom line is the same as its outlandish claim.
For an insecure Communist Party, there is no room for compromise on sovereignty matters these days, and that worries the international community.
Many speculate that China will lash out when the ruling is announced this week. Beijing could, for instance, declare a South China Sea air-defense identification zone, mimicking what it did over the East China Sea in November 2013. If China’s new zone includes airspace that other nations consider their own, as it surely would, its declaration will be a direct threat to peace and stability in the region as well as an impingement on freedom of navigation.
China’s assault on the global commons would be a clear challenge to the U.S. If America has had any consistent foreign policy over the course of more than two centuries, it has been the defense of international water and airspace.
Even more provocative would be China beginning “reclamation” of Scarborough Shoal, turning it into an island able to support a military outpost.
The Chinese seized this feature, which lies just 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon, in the spring of 2012. Then, they dishonored an agreement brokered by Washington to withdraw their craft surrounding the critical feature, long thought to be part of the Philippines.
The Obama administration, hoping to avoid confrontation, did not enforce the agreement, and Beijing, emboldened by easy success, then increased pressure on another Philippine feature, Second Thomas Shoal.
Reclamation of Scarborough, which guards Manila and Subic Bays, would make permanent China’s seizure and demonstrate Beijing’s absolute determination to control the South China Sea. Therefore, it would be an ideal response, from its point of view, to the upcoming ruling.
So far, Beijing has sent survey ships to the shoal, the first step in island building. In response, four U.S. Air Force ground-attack A-10s overflew Scarborough in April in what the service termed “an air and maritime domain awareness mission.”
The other move Beijing may be contemplating is ejecting Manila from Second Thomas. There, Philippine marines are occupying a rusting hulk that was deliberately marooned to mark Philippine sovereignty, but the outpost is now surrounded by Chinese vessels, much like Scarborough four years ago.
In the past year, Washington has consistently applied pressure on China to prevent it from using force in the South China Sea. A Chinese test of American resolve is coming because Beijing, after creating public markers, cannot walk back. China can defer its challenge to a time when the U.S. is preoccupied elsewhere, but it has left itself no room to compromise in the long run.
So that challenge, either now or later, is coming. And the stakes will be higher than most Americans can imagine. In late March, the New York Times reported that Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was overhead at the Pentagon asking Admiral Harry Harris, the chief of U.S. Pacific Command, this question: “Would you go to war over Scarborough Shoals?”