China’s 3,000-Acre Aircraft Carriers Could Change the Balance of Power in the Pacific
That’s why the United States needs to act now.
The Great Wall, as President Richard Nixon so elegantly said on his first trip to Beijing in 1972, was indeed a “great wall.” Nearly half a century later, a new Great Wall is under construction by China — what Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. military forces throughout the Pacific, has famously called a “Great Wall Of Sand.” That wall, unfortunately, is not so great.
Instead of stone, brick, and wood, this new wall consists of artificial islands strung out across the South China Sea — a region Beijing claims by virtue of historical right. China’s claim is encompassed by what it terms the “nine-dash line,” a radical demarcation of maritime sovereignty that takes an enormous bite out of the legitimate territorial claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries ringing the South China Sea.
The crucial context of this behavior is that the South China Sea — Asia’s “cauldron,” as geostrategist Robert D. Kaplan calls it — is bubbling like the witches’ kettle in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The South China Sea matters not only because it is contested territory, but because it’s hugely important to the smooth operation of the global economy. More than $5 trillion of the world’s annual trade passes through the South China Sea, all under the watchful eyes of the (oddly named) People’s Liberation Army Navy.
China’s aggressive behavior in building these artificial islands tracks with its disregard of other norms of international law. Some of these provocations include lack of clarity on the claim itself — a claim that international lawyers widely regard as preposterous; an air-defense identification zone over the East China Sea directed at the United States, Japan, and South Korea; the placement of a mobile oil platform in Vietnam’s coastal waters; and the widely reported (and massive) cyberthefts of U.S. intellectual property, industrial secrets, and personal data.
The specifics on the construction of these artificial islands are staggering. Thus far — and construction continues — China has created nearly 3,000 acres of land out of the ocean. Just consider that the highly touted and massive U.S. aircraft carriers (from which can launch a wing of more than 70 jets and helicopters) are only about 5 acres of flattop. Are these artificial islands similar to hundreds of unsinkable aircraft carriers in the South China Sea? Think that shifts the balance between the two competing militaries? You bet it does.
Besides the obvious geopolitical and military issues, significant ecological damage is also underway, according to many scientists. One expert from the University of Miami, John McManus, called China’s building of man-made islands “the most rapid rate of permanent loss of coral reef area in human history.”
Add to this the internal tension under which President Xi Jinping’s regime is operating: falling real estate prices, an aging population, misbalance of men (too many) and women (too few), terrible ecological damage requiring significant mitigation, and, above all, a sputtering economy that is stunting growth. When authoritarian regimes come under pressure, they tend to look outward to find ways to distract the population. Nationalism emerges. Such is the case in China today.
Witness Xi’s recent speech at the United Nations — full of barely concealed vitriol directed at the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The tension between Japan and China has been waxing and waning over the past several years. Now, it’s increasing again.
What is the best approach for the United States? This tense situation is out in the open, and Xi’s late September visit to Washington did not fundamentally change anything.
First, despite provocations, the United States must maintain open communications with China and seek ways to reduce the chances of an inadvertent collision either between the United States and China (unlikely) or between China and one of its immediate neighbors (far more likely). The U.S. relationship with China encompasses economic issues, geopolitical cooperation from Afghanistan to Iran, and global environmental issues — the South China Sea dispute is only one element. Dialogue is crucial. And the agreements on military-to-military contact and cybersecurity that the two presidents discussed during Xi’s visit are better than nothing.
Second, the United States needs to strengthen its relationship with existing allies and partners in the region and encourage them to work together better. This applies especially to Japan and South Korea, which, for a host of historical reasons, have long had an uncomfortable relationship. The United States can help build better ties between the two neighbors by promoting military exchanges and exercises, enabling conversations at important events like the Shangri-La Dialogue, and encouraging Track II engagement through academic and research institutions. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive multilateral trade agreement, is a big element: Building a network of even stronger trading ties can ensure that America’s friends and allies cooperate with each other. And in particular, working closer with Vietnam makes good sense — and this should include lifting bans on weapons sales.
Third, the fundamental tenets of international law are against China’s approach in the South China Sea. The United States should sternly emphasize this in international forums like the United Nations, the G-7, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The intellectual underpinnings of international legal judgments on the South China Sea are very clear: Nations cannot simply declare a “historical claim” and take over what other nations regard as international waters. The United States, as a global maritime power, should not miss any opportunity to object. And frankly, the United States should finally sign the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the treaty that governs the world’s oceans, to maintain the high ground in these conversations.
Fourth, and finally, the United States should exercise its traditional rights of transit under international legal norms: its “freedom of navigation” operations. That means overflying Chinese territorial claims and sailing U.S. ships through China’s claimed water space — the waters within 12 miles of these islands. The United States has a long tradition of countering unjustified historical claims by sailing and flying through international waters and airspace. Now is the time to exercise it in the South China Sea.
None of these strategic prescriptions by themselves will resolve the challenges of the South China Sea. Nor will simply moving U.S. military aircraft and vessels through claimed Chinese air and sea space suffice. Pushing back on Chinese claims in the South China Sea requires a broader strategy that treats this violation of international law in the larger context of both Chinese behavior and Sino-U.S. relations. Above all, it will require U.S. leadership alongside America’s many partners and friends throughout East Asia. China’s Great Wall was at least partially successful in keeping foreigners out. Its Great Wall of Sand will not be.