Much like many crises that befall the United States, few Americans concern themselves with their day to day lives until something from some faraway land draws the National attention. The World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and 9/11 serve as great examples of this inclination. On almost a monthly basis, US and Chinese naval forces face-off in an adult game of chicken in another faraway region. And that game takes place in a region that most Americans would be hard-pressed to locate. The South China Sea figures as a place of simmering tension for some very good reasons. Much like other areas unknown to most Americans, the South China Sea bears watching.
Imagine if the Gulf of Mexico served as a connecting sea lane for multiple countries of major opposing political ideologies. Envision each nation laying claim to vast portions of that relatively tight body of water. Further, still, each of those nations faces mutual challenges of expanding commerce, populations, and their accompanying needs such as oil and raw materials. Such analogy provides a good description of the South China Sea.
Brunei, China, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam all share borders with this vast area. The South China Sea encompasses an ocean from the Karimata and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan, approximately 1.3 million square miles. Consequently, action by any of these actors to restrict that area must receive American attention. While the United States Navy’s mission is to fight our Country’s wars at sea, a secondary mission is keeping our vital sea lanes open as their freedom directly affects the American economy. The South China Sea’s place as a vital shipping lane cannot be overstated. Hence, the Navy maintains an ongoing and strong presence in the area.
While Brunei, the Philippines, and Vietnam have conducted no real acts to project power in the region, the same cannot be said of China. China views the South China Sea as their “backyard” and has acted strenuously in the last twenty years to make the point many times over. Perhaps the most overt and publicly known and acknowledged of these actions were the downing of a US Navy reconnaissance aircraft in 2001 and the building of artificial islands over the last seven years.
Referred to as the Hainan Island Incident, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a Navy EP-3E on April 1, 2001. While the Chinese aircrewman died, Chinese aircraft intercepted the damaged Navy aircraft and forced it to limp to Hainan Island with all 24 crewmen aboard. An international incident ensued as the US employed diplomatic efforts to retrieve their personnel. Ten days and several interrogations later, the US recovered their personnel. In the years since the incident, the US continues reconnaissance operations in the area facing a less aggressive Chinese Naval Air Force even today.
More importantly, China started dredging in 2013 culminating in a man-made island in 2014. Encompassing more than 3000 acres, artificial islands now hosts airfields capable of supporting combat aircraft and coordinating operations for Chinese naval ships. China now owns at least seven of these islands and their work continues. The latest of these efforts now sits on Fiery Cross Reef near the contested Sprately Islands, well outside of traditional Chinese territorial waters. The creation of this island on the east side of the body has the essence of creating the possibility of “choke point” for shipping. With bases on both sides of the South China Sea, an angered China now has the capability of shutting down shipping in the area.
Ironically, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states artificial islands fall outside the definition of “harbor works.” UN mandates declare they do not have their own territorial waters or exclusion zones. The United States, declaring the UN laws in effect, routinely sails warships into the area, conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations. The Chinese Navy, when present, makes their disdain for these activities known by intercepting and occasionally engaging in dangerous “close aboard” sailing activities against US Navy ships. Reports of the most aggressive of these acts may make the news cycle, but with a very short half-life.
A key consideration in understanding the importance of the South China Sea is the state of US and China relations with the country of Taiwan. In 1949, when the Chinese Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, lost its war with the Communists, they fled to the island. Shek and about two million of his followers joined the existing population and set up a government in exile. Declaring themselves the Republic of China, the nation figures prominently as a democratic country and as a thorn in the side of the People’s Republic of China. During the height of the Cold War, the US was unabashedly engaged in fostering and preserving the country’s independence from China. President Dwight Eisenhower was welcomed by record crowds when he visited the country in 1960. Taiwan, along with Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore, was once known as one of the Four Asian Tigers due to their economic prowess. Because of the Cold War, most Western nations and the United Nations regarded the ROC as the sole legitimate government of China until the 1970s.
Of course, this all changed when the United States formally recognized the PRC. In 1979, the United States switched its recognition from Taiwan to Beijing. Since the Nixon Administration, US policy toward Taiwan has looked something akin to a reluctant family claiming a bastard child-giving only a nod when it suited US needs. US policy toward Taiwan does not align with its overt and stated theme of fostering and supporting democracy in the world. In its official State Department documents, the US does not recognize Taiwan’s independence, but states it will “maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.” As China refers to Taiwan as the “Runaway Province,” the US understands that any moves to pull Taiwan closer would serve as a “poke in the eye” for China.
The South China Sea remains a vital area of interest for the United States. Its importance to regional access and commerce continue to concern US policy and war planners. As the US and China continue to ramp up their mutual rhetoric and engage in trade wars, the South China Sea bears watching. A closed South China Sea would impact not only the US economy but those of the areas neighboring entities.