So unless you’ve been living under an apolitical rock for the last few years, you’re probably aware of the ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
Alternately deemed the West Philippine Sea if you’re from the Philippines of course, and I’m sure that Vietnam has its own name for the region. Vietnam and China both press long standing claims to the region, the majority of the Spratly Islands (the focal point for the whole mess) lie mainly in the Philippines UN-recognized “Exclusive Economic Zone”, and even Taiwan is occasionally weighing in with claims of its own.
Suffice to say, it’s a bit of a mess.
But fear not!
China has the solution! Or at least, the solution to its lack of actual tangible real estate in the Spratlys beyond submerged reefs. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, and when life doesn’t see fit to give you actual islands?
Say what you will about the Chinese government, but you have to give them credit for chutzpah.
So what does all of this mean?
A long time ago I touched briefly on the notion that the government of China is preparing for a war with the United States over territorial ambitions. Well, to be precise, I didn’t so much describe it as a war, but rather as acquisition of the necessary capabilities to as to convince the US government that intervention in the South China Sea (and similar areas of economic interest) would be too costly.
Sort of a preemptive Cold War, if you will.
I think it’s reasonably safe to assume that once China feels sufficiently confident in their ability to keep the US Navy at bay, things are going to get… interesting, in (pun entirely intended) the ancient Chinese curse sort of way. They’ve got a whole range of territorial ambitions, an increasingly sophisticated military, and a populace weaned on the sort of nationalistic fervor we’ve not seen in the United States (to say nothing of Europe) for decades.
What they need, really, is a glorified training exercise, not so much an actual war but rather something more akin to what happens when the schoolyard bully drags you into the alley and demands your lunch money. Only in this case, lunch money is a metaphor for “territorial claims in arguably disputed waters which China intends to seize based on flimsy claims and in defiance of international law”.
They’ve already begun building at least one airstrip on their shiny new islands, in what is pretty obviously an attempt to compensate for the fact that they only have a single aircraft carrier, for now at least. And while a proper carrier is a somewhat more difficult target to pin down than a stationary island, they’re also prone to do things like sink when someone hits them with, say, an anti-ship ballistic missile.
With the United States unlikely to intervene over the ownership of a bunch of piddly islands that may-or-may-not contain substantial oil reserves (oil being rather less important than usual at the moment, and likely for the near future), particularly if the cost of such intervention was the destruction of one of our multi-billion dollar supercarriers (not to mention the ninety or so aircraft and over five thousand military personnel), all China would really have to worry about would be the military forces of Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Which is to say, not much.
The only sticking point really, from China’s perspective, would be in relocating civilian populations maintained in the region by those polities that do currently possess actual islands. I think it’s safe to assume that the Chinese are well aware of how rapidly the whole affair could go south if they wound up with a massacre on their hands, and that they’d go to great lengths to make sure that that didn’t happen.
So what does all this mean?
Simultaneously very little, and a great deal. On the one hand, even if oil prices climb, exactly who is extracting said oil from the region wouldn’t matter much; it’s an increase in supply, no matter who happens to be reaping the most profit from it. On the other hand, a forcible annexation of the South China Sea would set the stage for a vastly more dangerous confrontation in the East China Sea. A conflict over the Senkaku Islands could escalate into something we are treaty-bound to get involved in, in a part of the world where China holds some very decisive advantages.
China’s ambitions would worry me less if not for their rhetoric, and their apparent success in instilling a nationalistic fervor in their younger citizens. There was a time I simply assumed that China would mellow out as time went on and the old guard slowly died off, but these days I’m not so sure.
A confrontation seems almost inevitable, a clash between the desire to maintain American dominance and a yearning for Chinese ascendancy.