Foreign policy news these days is dominated by the Russia investigation, the Afghanistan war, or the demise of the Islamic State and the deteriorating civil war in Syria. Far less attention is given, however, to a much more consequential development: the rise of China as a global superpower. But make no mistake, Beijing has its eyes squarely fixed on this goal, and its recent actions clearly indicate that.
On Sunday, two Chinese fighter jets intercepted a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane that was flying over the East China Sea (ECS). According to Pentagon spokesman, one of the Chinese jets rapidly approached the U.S. plane then flew directly in front of it—within 300 feet—triggering a collision alarm system. This kind of provocation on China’s part has, until recently, been a rare occurrence. In May, there were two similar incidents, one in the airspace over the South China Sea (SCS) and the other over the East China Sea.
The East China Sea, which stretches between China and Japan and is claimed by both, has gotten less coverage because China has not built the kind of military installations or man-made islands there as it has in the SCS. The ECS is currently controlled by Japan, but in the past few years China has increased its naval patrols of islands in those waters.
China Is Territory-Stealing
China has continued to call U.S. surveillance planes flying over the SCS and ECS “provocations” and said the interception on Sunday was “legal and necessary.” But that airspace, just like the waters beneath it, is international. It is entirely within any country’s purview to fly and sail through them. Indeed, some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run through parts of the SCS that Beijing claims belong to China. China’s insistence that U.S. surveillance flights constitute provocations is an attempt by Beijing to treat its assertion of sovereignty in the region as a fait accompli.
If China can establish control of its man-made islands, including the installation of military equipment, runways, airbases, civilian residents, and now a movie theater, it can force other nations to recognize that this is the new normal.
But Beijing is blatantly ignoring the rules of international waters and other nations’ prior claims to parts of the SCS (Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei). In May, China allegedly threatened that it would be willing to go to war if the Philippines went through with a plan to drill for oil off its coast. In the past few days, China made a similar threat against Vietnam, which caused the Vietnamese government to order the Spain-based drilling company it had contracted with in the SCS to stop all drilling operations.
China also has defied a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which ruled in the Philippines’ favor last year, three years after Manila first brought the issue to the court. Beijing claims not to recognize the court’s jurisdiction.
The South China Sea isn’t the only venue in which China is increasing its activities. Last week, Beijing held the country’s first-ever joint naval drills with Russia in the Baltic Sea, of all places, leaving observers wondering the purpose of the week-long war game in which one of China’s most advanced missile-guided destroyers participated. Moscow has lately been making a lot of trouble in the Baltic Sea, causing NATO allies and countries like Finland to prepare for a possible invasion, and China now seems to want a piece of the action.
China also established its first overseas military base, conveniently located in Djibouti, near a valuable global shipping lane and just four miles from a U.S. installation. In addition, Chinese warships have been popping up all over the globe, including near Alaska, Japan, and Australia. While their movement thus far has been through international waters, and therefore not in violation of any international law, it is a clear sign of China’s desire to be taken seriously as a global military power. Too bad Beijing doesn’t respect that same right when other countries attempt to exercise their freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas.
So, What Are We Going to Do?
So what exactly is the United States planning to do about such blatant aggressions and challenges to the global order (shaky though it might be), and to what extent is it in America’s interest to get involved?
It’s obviously within U.S. interests to keep valuable international shipping lanes open to all commerce without Chinese infringement or interference. There’s also the matter of our allies in the region. If America abandons their fates to China’s aggressive assertion of regional dominance, it would not only be dishonorable, it would hurt America’s reputation abroad. This might seem like a small price to pay to avoid a conflict with China, but in the long run it will wreak infinitely more havoc and bring more conflicts to America’s doorstep down the road.
There is a slight cause for optimism on this front. An exclusive story from Breitbart last week claims the White House has approved a proposed plan crafted by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to conduct regular freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, or FONOPs. According to an anonymous U.S. official, Mattis wants to change the nature of conducting FONOPs. Instead of sending discrete requests to the National Security Council each time the U.S. Navy plans such an operation, he allegedly outlined a schedule for conducting them regularly throughout the rest of the year.
Carrying out FONOPs is a good way to challenge Beijing’s claims on the high seas. Despite China’s aggressive provocation, the Obama administration put an end to FONOPs from 2012 to 2015, and only conducted three in 2016 out of fear of upsetting Beijing (because appeasing a revanchist power always turns out so well). So far this year, the Trump administration has carried out three FONOPs and clearly has plans for several more. Let’s hope the Breitbart story is accurate and these become much more frequent as the year wears on.
But Our Message Isn’t Unified
Yet the administration is sending mixed signals. Last week at the first-ever Diplomatic and Security Dialogue between the United States and China, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used the same equivocating language that Xi Jinping’s government often uses, claiming that the Chinese are committed “to resolve their disputes peacefully and in accordance with recognized principles of international law, including the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.
So the question remains, will Mattis’ FONOPs be enough? Some are doubtful, like Hugh White, writing in The Interpreter, who argues that America’s recent track record in Asia has convinced the Chinese that the United States won’t defend its allies’ interests in the region, or its own:
“Certainly the Chinese do not want a war with America, but their recent conduct suggests they are increasingly confident that they do not need to fear one, because America can be relied upon to back off first from any confrontation… If US leaders cannot convince Americans that its leading role in Asia is worth going to war with China to defend, then they cannot convince the Chinese. And if they cannot convince the Chinese, then the Chinese will not be deterred from the assertive behaviour which is so effectively undermining US leadership in Asia today.”
The Trump administration needs to decide what its goals are in the Asia Pacific, and what its strategic posture toward a rising China is going to be. Beijing, it seems, has already answered those questions for itself.
A version of this article appeared as the lead essay in our foreign policy email newsletter, INBOUND. Subscribe here.