The Buzz

We Were Warned: China Challenges the Status-Quo While the U.S. Navy Shrinks

While world leaders gathered in China for the G-20 summit, Asia hands the world over, especially here in Washington, D.C., seemed preoccupied with another breaking news event (and no, we aren’t talking about the drama surrounding President Obama’s strange red carpet snub or National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s awkward moment on the tarmac—we could only be so lucky).

Sadly, it seems Beijing has leveraged the G-20 to remind the world that not only has it risen to the level of global superpower, but that it has the right to alter the status quo in a highly contested part of East Asia that is clearly a powder keg, just waiting for the match to be lit.

Beginning Friday morning EST, social media feeds began circulating a report in the New York Times indicating China had massed vessels around Scarborough Shoal, a group of rocks approximately 150 miles off the coast off the main islands of The Philippines. While controversial—but also a near constant act of Chinese aggression for several years—this time something was different. Reports indicated that possibly troop ships as well as barges—barges that could be used for dredging, the first steps in turning unassuming rocks into islands and then military outposts, something China has done time and time again in the South China Sea—were now parked near the Shoal. Philippines President Duarte wants answers and has summoned the Chinese Ambassador.

Unfortunately for the new Philippine President, he already knows that whatever explanation the Chinese ambassador offers won’t matter. China has made the slick calculation that the time is now if it is going to solidify its hold on Scarborough. If turned into a military outpost, it will only enhance Beijing’s surveillance capabilities throughout the South China Sea, not only giving China a greater foothold where $5.3 trillion dollars of seaborne trade passes every year, but surely the final step before Beijing declares an Air-Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ. At that point, China’s control over the South China Sea, one of the most economically vital waterways in the world, would be nearly complete.

But we can’t say we weren't’ warned. Foreign policy experts the world over have been documenting since the early 2000s the increasing scope and intensity of China's aggressive actions throughout the Asia-Pacific and now stretching into the larger Indo-Pacific region. One specific commentator, Robert C. O’Brien, a former advisor to not one, not two but three Republican presidential candidates, in multiple essays for various publications, lays out a prophetic body of evidence that China’s economic and military rise combined with dangerous actions that challenge Asia’s peaceful status-quo would have wide global ramifications. His new book, While America Slept, a timely collection of essays of O’Brien’s work over the last several years, should serve as essential reading for those who are not only interested in the dangers of a rising China, but where American foreign policy during the Obama years has failed to reinforce Washington’s interests around the globe.

While the book itself delves into issues of U.S. domestic politics, ISIS, the greater challenges in the Middle East and beyond, being someone who is fascinated with all things Asia as well as the state of America’s armed forces, there were two parts of the work that were clearly my favorites and of certain value to Asia watchers and defense experts. First, as noted above, is O’Brien’s analysis when it comes to the troublesome actions of China over the last several years. In multiple essays for The Diplomat, O’Brien lays out the challenge before the U.S. foreign policy community back in 2011: