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China: A Free Hand in the South China Sea?

Is Beijing’s maritime strategy sinking freedom of navigation In the South China Sea?

February 5, 2016

Is Beijing’s maritime strategy sinking freedom of navigation In the South China Sea?

Power projects. Absolute power projects absolutely. That’s Beijing’s clear message as China defiantly lands planes on artificial island garrisons in the South China Sea, while U.S. warships impotently run “freedom of navigation” patrols in vain protest.

There should be no mistake about Beijing’s intentions here. Its string of “unsinkable aircraft carrier” islands are being equipped with airstrips, helipads, sophisticated missile-guiding telemetry and submarine-tracking sonar.

These fortress garrisons represent a critical cog in a coercive military machine designed to prosecute Beijing’s sweeping revanchist claim to 90% of the South China Sea.

China’s revanchist claim centers on its controversial “nine-dash line,” shown in the accompanying figure. Known derisively in Asia as “The Cow’s Tongue” for its shape, this nine-dash line is based on ancient – that is, revanchist – historical rights.

In branding this claim “preposterous,” former White House advisor Stefan Halper notes: “It’s like Mexico claiming the Gulf of Mexico.”

If Beijing is allowed to enforce its Cow’s Tongue claim, it would effectively transform the South China Sea into a “China lake.”

This would not just transfer to China untold natural resource wealth from countries like Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. It would also effectively run the U.S. navy out of the Asia-Pacific.

To understand just how expansive China’s nine-dash line claim is, consider Indonesia’s East Natuna natural gas field. This field, discovered in the 1970s, remains one of the largest untapped reserves in the world, with proven gas reserves estimated at 46 trillion cubic feet.

While the East Natuna field is clearly within Indonesia’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone under the Law of the Sea Treaty, the field is also within the boundaries of China’s nine-dash line – even though China’s mainland is almost 1,000 miles away.

From Cow’s Tongues to Salami Slicing

China is not just pressing its Cow’s Tongue claim with its growing string of unsinkable aircraft carrier islands. Beijing is also using a clever and coercive “salami slicing” strategy.

As Professor T.X. Hammes of America’s National Defense University explains, “China doesn’t ever put on enough pressure to get a military push back, but uses just enough pressure to seize territory.”

At the tip of China’s salami-slicing spear is its white-hulled China Marine Surveillance force – China’s equivalent of the U.S. Coast Guard.

The former Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, James Fanell – who has ruffled White House feathers for many a blunt statement, said, “Unlike U.S. Coast Guard cutters, China Marine Surveillance cutters have no other mission but to harass other nations into submitting to China’s expansive claims.”

Of course, should trouble arise, always waiting over the coercive horizon are China’s gray-hulled warships – and now China’s growing string of aircraft carriers.

Absent a credible response from the United States and its allies, China will continue to build out its fortress garrisons, further expand its territorial claims, and slowly but surely salami-slice its way to control of the South China Sea – home to one-third of all global shipping and a key gateway for the oil that lights the lamps of East Asia.

If recent past is prologue, a credible U.S. response is doubtful– much to the increasing consternation of America’s allies in Asia.

Not enough attention to China?

The abiding geopolitical fact here is that when Beijing’s military strategists assess the probability of a credible U.S. pushback, all they see is this:

    1. A White House distracted by a war on terror and events in the Middle East

    2. A U.S. Congress largely focused on other issues

    3. A war-weary American public that can’t point to the South China Sea on a map and continues to finance China by buying “Made in China”

    4. A rapidly shrinking U.S. naval fleet without sufficient ships to enforce its “Talk Loudly, Carry a Weak Stick” protests

    5. A growing arsenal of China’s own weapons increasingly capable of neutralizing U.S. power, while successfully bullying weak neighbors, and

    6. A series of presidential election debates in the United States that have focused on everything but Chinese aggression

Beijing is not seeing this chessboard wrong. The question is whether American diplomacy can truly pivot to Asia and make this rapidly deteriorating situation right.

That’s why this year’s presidential election is so important. It’s well past time the election debate gave the Chinese hegemony its due – and a good place to start is with a national discussion about China’s empire building in the South China Sea.


If Beijing proves its Cow’s Tongue claim, it would transform the South China Sea into a “China lake.”

China puts just as much pressure as needed not to face military push back but still to seize territory.

Beijing is not seeing this chessboard wrong. Can American diplomacy truly pivot to Asia?

The US needs a national discussion about China’s empire building in the South China Sea.