By: Terence Rosenthal, June 1, 2016
The Pentagon’s most overlooked military threat is Chinese militarized aggression in the South China Sea. Following the ISIS/Syria conflict, Chinese aggression in the South China Sea is the most significant global military threat. Currently the Chinese are constructing seven islands in the international waters of the South China Sea equipped with military airfields, radar systems, and surface-to-air missile systems. In addition, China is claiming all waters inside of the Nine-Dash-Line, which composes approximately 90% of the South China Sea. Through law-fare regarding U.N. Law of the Sea, the China is attempting to extend the boundaries of its waters to the end of its continental shelf, hundreds of miles into the South China Sea. As a result, the Chinese have coerced ships of ASEAN claimants near the Scarborough Shoals, and the Spratly Islands, part of the First Island Chain of the South China Sea.
While the South China Sea does not have the same ramifications in terms of collateral damage and loss of life as ISIS/Syria, its economic and geopolitical threats are far greater. The South China Sea, the busiest maritime trade zone in the world, is home to 50% of global maritime trade as well as the transport of approximately 60% of Japanese and South Korean energy supply. Significant adjustment to Southeast Asian trade routes may cost trillions of dollars to the U.S. and its allies. Chinese extension of hegemony to the disputed First Island Chain, hundreds of miles off of China’s coast, will effectively push U.S. forces out of the South China Sea.
To turn the tide, the U.S. must unify Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, in response to China’s claim of the Nine Dash Line and its territorial advance toward the First Island Chain. This is possible through the TPP, or other multilateral partnerships. In addition, The U.S. should extend greater flexibility regarding loan and trade regulations to ASEAN powers in the transfer of maritime surveillance, satellite systems, and port development. Finally, the U.S. must set global precedent by encouraging international arbitration against China among all South China Sea claimants. If the U.S. delays, China will take advantage of ASEAN vulnerability, and arrange agreements with all South China Sea claimants individually. These agreements will diminish all ASEAN opposition to China in the South China Sea. The Chinese Navy has slightly more than700 craft, over 300 of which are in the South China Sea. Currently, the U.S. Navy currently only has slightly more than 400 craft in total. To be fair, 60% of U.S. Naval air assets are currently in the Pacific. By 2020, the U.S. wishes to send its newest air and amphibious equipment to the region. However, it is obvious that China is racing to become the top global power. By 2020, China may have complete control over the South China Sea.
Time is not on the side of the U.S. What is most troubling is that the freedom of global trade is at stake. 90% of trade is accomplished on the high seas. Trade is the lifeblood of free markets, and democracy. While the U.S. and its allies cannot engage in every global conflict, at the very least, they must assure freedom among maritime trade routes. If the Chinese remain unchallenged in the South China Sea, they will be perceived as the top global superpower. Global free trade will cease to exist. U.S. citizens, and the citizens of the U.S.’ allies will pay the price.