China claims the entire South China Sea is within its sphere of influence. They have declared that sea a veritable Chinese lake. And they are currently staking their claim by building islands which quite obviously could soon serve as large stationary “aircraft carriers” and missile launch platforms. American politicians, pundits and military leaders object to this Chinese encroachment in international waters. There is irony in the fact that the United States has never signed off on the United Nations International Law of the Sea which limits a country’s sphere of influence to 200 miles offshore.
Never mind. The U.S. considers the shipping lanes in the South China Sea to be vital to its national security. Or more accurately, vital to the trade and economic security of its closest allies in the region – Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines. Much, if not most, of the oil that those countries import is shipped through that sea. The American Seventh Fleet, with its aircraft carrier tasks forces, has been patrolling there for the past seventy years. As I write, the American carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) is en route to Japan where she and her escorts will be permanently stationed.
So what’s with the Chinese? Why are they intent on disturbing the status quo by constructing military bases in the middle of the South China Sea? One needs to understand the recent history of China to get a clue.
During the nineteenth century China was “carved up like a melon” by the European and Japanese imperial powers. The British, Germans, French and Japanese laid claim to every province of coastal China. The British colonized Hong Kong and Guangdong Province. At the time China was forced to sign the so-called unequal treaties, forsaking sovereignty over much of her territory. The first Sino-Japanese War (in 1895) resulted in the loss of Chinese sovereignty over Northeast China. In short, the proud Chinese were seriously humiliated during the 1800s and by the Japanese during the 1930s until 1945. The world may forget the Rape of Nanjing. Trust me, the Chinese never will. The only major nation that did not carve a piece out of China was the United States of America.
Given that historical context, a currently strong and confident China and its people are determined that never again will they allow themselves to be invaded and carved up by anyone. My take is that their current expansion into the South China Sea is a defensive chess move. I don’t see it as a case of blatant aggression such as we see in Eastern Europe where the Russians seem intent on expanding their empire.
Know one thing about China – its leadership and its people. They are driven in the twenty-first century by a strident nationalism. And unbridled nationalism can indeed be dangerous. No doubt there are hyper-nationalistic Chinese military officers today who would relish a confrontation with the overstretched US military in the South and East China Seas.
We in the West refer to this powerful sentiment as patriotism. It is called nationalism when it involves the people of countries that were once upon a time occupied as colonies. The emotion and motivation are similar – whether one calls it patriotism or nationalism. The Chinese are no less deeply nationalistic than we Americans are patriotic. And that may explain why China insists on setting up defenses distant from its littoral. Think Monroe Doctrine.
I can’t foresee any reason why the United States and China should go to war against each other. However, accidents (and collisions) do happen. As long as the Chinese do not obstruct the international shipping lanes where those Asia-bound supertankers sail and Seventh Fleet carriers patrol, then conflict in the South China Sea can and should be avoided. The continued peace really comes down now to freedom of navigation.