Thursday, July 21, 2011

Weakness encourages war -- the South China Sea edition

I am starting yet another ongoing series called "How weakness encourages war."  It will highlight how a projection of weakness by one party (usually, but not limited to, the US under the Obama administration) encourages that party's enemies to cause mischief and even violence.  It will run, basically, whenever I feel like running it.

Today's installment considers one of the more obvious examples, China.  At Hot Air, blogger J.E. Dyer gives a long, scholarly post a fairly obvious title, "Meanwhile, in the South China Sea: 'Forget the US'":

Senator James Webb (D-VA) told David Gregory on Meet the Press three weeks ago that he thinks the US is facing a “Munich moment” with China in Southeast Asia. While no exact analogy is on the horizon to the original Munich moment – Neville Chamberlain proclaiming “peace in our time” after agreeing with Hitler to the partition of Czechoslovakia – Webb’s larger point is that China’s career of aggression in the South China Sea needs checking.

Perhaps a better analogy would be calling the current situation in the South China Sea a prospective remilitarization-of-the-Rhine moment. In any case, Webb is right that there are things to worry about. China has been systematically occupying and fortifying tiny islands in the Paracel and Spratly chains for decades, as have other claimants like Vietnam and the Philippines. But growing Chinese aggression against the maritime activities of Vietnam, which has included damaging the equipment of oil exploration vessels and attacking Vietnamese fishing ships, has the region on edge.
The next crisis is coming.  Very, very soon:

The next milestone in China’s effort to assert sovereignty over the South China Sea is anticipated to be the installation of a one-of-a-kind drilling platform in an area of the Spratly archipelago that falls in the Philippine economic exclusion zone (EEZ)(see map for approximate location. The giant semi-submersible platform is reportedly to be towed out from China and installed this month. If Marine Oil 981 is indeed towed to the proposed site, it is not clear what will be done about it. The Philippines has dispatched naval forces to patrol the waters in her EEZ, but in a naval confrontation with China, the Philippine navy would have no chance.

Yet this is the move that cannot be allowed to stand. The maritime claims on which China bases her assertion of the right to install this platform are excessive by the terms of the UN Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and conflict with the claims of the other nations with extensive coastlines on the South China Sea (see also here, and see map below). If China can force Marine Oil 981 on the region, without effective pushback, Chinese power will make the incremental but game-changing shift from regional challenger to regional arbiter of the status quo.
Dyer includes some very useful maps, including one of the area targeted by Marine Oil 981:

The crisis will likely go unnoticed.  Why is this important? Well, look at the area in the South China Sea claimed by China:

Even worse, if China's moves are successful, it can effectively block the South China Sea lanes with anti-ship missiles:

The South China Sea is incredibly important to the merchant trade.  Keeping those lanes open was a big reason why we went to war against the Communists in Vietnam.  Closing those lanes was an even bigger reason why we defeated Japan in World War II.  It's that important.

Surely, we're not going to give it up without a fight:

At a recent conference on defense topics held in the Philippines, a retired Indian general officer said of the prospect that the US might intervene to block China: “Forget the U.S. It will not happen. They are going to sleep.” Perhaps it’s too soon to render this judgment, but Jim Webb has good reason to be worried. China is pushing harder, in spite of the toughness putatively being displayed by the US with our joint military exercises around China’s perimeter.
I'm not a big fan of James Webb -- his opposition to the War in Iraq makes me question his overall foreign policy judgment -- but he's right about this.  China is a malevolent bully on the world stage.  We need to start aggressively checking their moves.

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