Here's How America Can Stop China in the South China Sea

"If the United States and its allies want to stop this, they must think fast and act faster."

The release of a U.S. Navy P-8 video flying over the South China Sea was a shock to many. 

The footage revealed a small armada of dredging vessels, support ships, and auxiliaries, working diligently to build People’s Liberation Army Air Force bases. According to international law, most islets China has occupied lie within the territorial waters of either the Philippines or Vietnam, and Chinese actions could be interpreted as maritime invasion. Despite Chinese claims to the contrary, neither Chinese behavior, nor its 9 dotted line, are consistent with customary international law or the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. Nor do it’s historical claims stand real scrutiny, as a recent piece by South China Sea scholar, Bill Hayton shows.

China’s actions, therefore, are a gross infraction of the internationally agreed upon system of rules and represent a major challenge to the current global order, particularly since it takes place across one of the world’s most vital shipping arteries. One might argue, that it is as much a challenge to international peace and security as was Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. If China is allowed to create islands in order to claim control over a vital shipping lane, what’s to stop a slew of global imitators? What exactly is China’s strategic aim and what can be done about it?

Some would argue that China views the international system with cynicism, having been prey to Japanese and Western imperialism during the 18th and 19th centuries. China’s behavior, they say, is merely a means of protecting itself from the types of naval intrusions that it suffered, a “Great Wall of Sand,” to consolidate its First Island Chain. There is some truth to the argument that Chinese naval behavior is predicated on a political historical narrative of weakness and foreign predation. Certainly, much of what China is doing is explained this way domestically.

However, China has shown itself to be willing to adopt elements of the international system which favor its interests; its membership in the UN Security Council and a number of international fora, like the WTO, World Bank, and many others. Furthermore, China’s narrative of weakness—the so-called “100 years of humiliation”—cleverly highlights predation on the part of the West, while papering over China’s own Imperial Qing (1644-1912) predation on neighbors Dzungaria, Tibet, Vietnam, Formosa, and Laos. In many ways, the 100 years narrative is used to justify China’s behavior in a similar way Berlin used the “shameful peace at Versailles” to mobilize Germany’s domestic politics in the inter-war period.

(Recommended: 5 Chinese Weapons of War America Should Fear)

The historical similarity to Germany’s expansionism during this the 1930s and China’s push on its periphery is striking, and might serve as a framework for how the US and its allies should build a political-military counter strategy. One immediate implication of this framework is to avoid any policy of appeasement; history teaches us this merely facilitated war in the end as Hitler’s ambitions were fed by the Rhine area and the Sudetenland. China’s strategy seems to hold a geopolitical logic. Certainly undersea gas fields and fertile fishing waters play a role, but it is fundamentally Chinese behavior is about taking control of one of the world’s busiest trade sea-lanes. This is in essence the first step in a three pronged strategy: first, dominate the South China Sea with Chinese military forces; second, use this de facto control to develop a new benevolent Sino-centric system in Southeast Asia; one in which ASEAN states implicitly submit their foreign policy to Chinese control; third, use this control to exert pressure on Seoul, Taipei, Manila and Tokyo—four U.S. allies, heavily dependent on the sea-lane, which transits the South China Sea.

(Recommended: How Russia Could Make China the King of the South China Sea)