Little did China realize that her attempt to take over the South China Sea (SCS) would be met with resistance from the United States as well as the Permanent Court of Arbitration. And with the speed it took to accomplish the one-two punch against the rising superpower in Asia-Pacific in a matter of two days, it left China with few options, none of which – except total withdrawal — she’d win without drawing massive indignation or backlash from the world community.
It all began on October 27, 2015, when the United States sent the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, to within 12 miles of the Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in the Spratly archipelago. The passage of the U.S. warship through waters that China claims as her territory drew protests from the Chinese government who threatened retaliatory actions against the U.S. for violating China’s sovereignty.
Two days later, on October 29, the Permanent Court of Arbitration issued its first ruling on the arbitration case filed by the Philippines against China over the disputed areas in the South China Sea. The five-member arbitration tribunal, which is based at The Hague, Netherlands, unanimously ruled that it has jurisdiction to hear the Philippines’ territorial claims filed against China.
The tribunal rejected China’s claim that the disputes were about its territorial sovereignty. China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over a region that comprises about 85% of the entire South China Sea. She has boycotted the proceedings insisting that the arbitral tribunal doesn’t have jurisdiction or authority to hear the case. But the tribunal ruled that it has the authority to hear seven of the Philippines’ submissions under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The tribunal also made it clear that China’s decision not to participate in the arbitration “did not deprive the tribunal of jurisdiction.”
The U.S. welcomed the decision of the arbitral tribunal. A U.S. defense official said, “This demonstrates the relevance of international law to the territorial conflicts in the South China Sea,” then added, “It demonstrates that sovereign claims are not necessarily indisputable and it shows that judging issues like this on the basis of international law and international practice are a viable way of, at a minimum, managing territorial conflicts if not resolving them.”
But as China had repeatedly expressed – and threatened – in the past, she is not going to abide by a decision that would contradict with China’s claim that the South China Sea is “an area of ‘core interest’ that is non-negotiable.” But would China go to war to protect her sovereignty over the SCS? Based on her pronounced stand on the issue, she will. But the $64,000 question is: Would she? And that brings to fore the ultimate question: What is the value of “ownership” of the South China Sea to China and why is it important that she has exclusive right over it? To answer this question, one has to recall China’s dream of becoming the dominant power in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
In an article, “China to take Second Island Chain by 2020,” published in the Want China Times on June 27, 2013, Admiral Liu Huaqing, the mastermind of China’s modern naval strategy, was quoted as saying in 1982 that it would be necessary for China to control the First and Second Island Chains by 2010 and 2020, respectively. “The PLA Navy must be ready to challenge US domination over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean in 2040. If China is able to dominate the Second Island Chain seven years from now, the East China Sea will become the backyard of the PLA Navy,” he said.
The following year, 2014, China started building artificial islands around seven reefs and shoals in the Spratly archipelago. In three of these man-made islands, China built defense fortifications, troop garrisons, runways that could accommodate China’s biggest bombers, and deep-water harbors where her warships could dock. Although she denied militarizing these artificial islands, satellite photos clearly show that the structures built on them are for military use.
President Barack Obama’s go-signal to the U.S. Navy to patrol the waters within 12 miles of the artificial islands was hailed by three of America’s staunchest allies, Japan, Australia, and particularly the Philippines, which is within 200 miles from these “unsinkable aircraft carriers,” as a U.S. senior naval officer described them. But many are of the opinion that Obama’s order was “too little, too late” because it would be hard to convince China to dismantle or abandon the artificial islands. China would never abandon them… unless the U.S. would go to war against her. But that will not happen. Not now. There is just so much to lose by both countries to go to war over these islands.
But China has to react to the U.S.’s “infringement” of her sovereign rights. However, one needs to know that China is going through an economic downturn, falling stock values, rising unemployment, declining exports, shrinking consumer spending, and an increasingly corrupt military and bureaucracy. The Chinese people are edgy and Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to blame the U.S. and Japan for all the country’s ills.
It did not then come as a surprise that anti-American and anti-Japanese sentiments are running high among the Chinese people. And these are all Xi needs to rally the people to his side. In other words, Xi could increase his anti-American rhetoric without really going to war. He knows that war with the U.S. at this time would be devastating to China. Simply put, China doesn’t have the capability to defeat the U.S. in a naval battle or crush her with nuclear power.
So, what is China going to do to save face? An easy one would be to send a flotilla to patrol the waters around those artificial islands and confront U.S. warships that enter her territory. And what would the U.S. warships do? While the two navies would be in a standoff situation, I don’t think that either side would start a battle. However, unintended incidents could happen that could lead to skirmish, which could bring the two countries closer to war.
Meanwhile, China could start deploying military aircraft and warships to the militarized artificial islands as well as building more artificial islands, which she threatened to do as a consequence of the American “intrusion.” What would Obama do then? Is he going to attack or withdraw his naval forces?
Or is he going to negotiate a compromise, one of which is to demilitarize the artificial islands and put them under the United Nations’ control, but will remain as the exclusive economic zones of the rightful countries as mandated by UNCLOS. It would be a fair and equitable solution but it would be a painful pill for China to swallow. But what else could China do when a double whammy hits her?